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Area schools struggling to keep up with growth

READ MORE: Area schools struggling to keep up with growth
NEW HANOVER COUNTY -- The evidence of our growing region is apparent in our already overcrowded schools. Every school in Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties is filled to capacity. Many factors play into the growth of our local schools. As more businesses move to our area more families will too. Families mean more children, children our current school facilities can't handle. Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties are all experiencing an increase in student populations. For the past two years, North Brunswick High School has had 30 students too many. North Brunswick High School Principal Robert Grimes said, "We're running out of space, we already have seven modular units, there really isn't a lot of room to put additional units on this campus." Brunswick County serves close to 12,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. New Hanover County has almost twice that many students -- over 20,000. New Hanover Superintendent Dr. Al Lerch says growth is inevitable. "A school system has to be prepared for change, even change that we can not imagine right now, but we have to be mentally flexible enough to embrace it," Lerch said. At times flexibility has meant a temporary fix. Lerch said, "We have the ability to correct for that over time. We have had to add mobile units, educational cottages to certain schools. And even though the community doesn't necessarily like to see it, it allows their child to stay at that school, so in the end we are still serving the needs of that individual community and we are not forcing that community to go some place else." Ann Thomas has two children at Blair Elementary School. She says while it's a bit cramped, she thinks the district is heading in the right direction. New Hanover County resident Ann Thomas said, "I don't have any concerns about over crowding of the schools." New Hanover County Facilities Director Carmen Gintoli said, "We can't keep up. If we were to do everything we needed to do to our existing schools, right now we would need another $300 million." Up the road in Pender County, it's much of the same. According to School Construction Director David Smith, millions of dollars is needed to take the county into the year 2020. Smith said, "We can't keep up with the growth with the present schools that we have." A perfect example of that is at Topsail High School. Almost 1,000 students are in a school designed for just 400. Dealing with the overcrowding comes down to dollars and cents. Much of the funding for schools comes straight from the people it serves, through local property taxes. School Board Chairman Tom Roper says in the future, the district will have to find new ways to pull in money. Roper said, "We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure and we can't do it on the backs of the taxpayers. The way we are currently structured and we are going to have get some help with industry, good, business, good retail, and we are really going to have work with the county commissioners to make that happen." Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick Counties each are in the process of building new schools. One 60-acre plot of land in northern New Hanover County will be home to a new elementary and middle school, expected to open in August of 2009. Brunswick County also has new elementary and middle schools scheduled to open in 2009. And in Pender County the new Topsail High School will accommodate more than 1,000 students. Officials also plan to renovate existing schools in the future.

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