Declining School Enrollment in Eastern Carteret: Is There a Fix?

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A 2016 OREd study predicted East Carteret would be at only 62 percent of capacity by 2026 compared to Croatan's 121 percent and West's 110 percent. (OREd)

For the past couple decades, the population of Carteret County has been growing toward the west. It should come as no surprise that public school populations have followed a similar pattern, with student enrollment growing in the west and declining in the east. The county school system has already begun exploring the changes in population density, but has not gotten behind any potential solutions to the problem.

Unbalanced Populations

In 2016, the Board of Education commissioned a professional study on population growth, land use, and predicted school enrollment for Carteret County.

The study was conducted by The Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE), which conducts research on surface, water, and air transportation research for every school in the University of North Carolina system; as well as The Operations Research and Education Laboratory (OREd), which assists K-12 school systems by providing decision management tools for issues pertaining to student assignment and long-range school planning, as stated in the study results.

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According to the study, the forecasted average daily membership (ADM) for the 2019-2020 school year would be as follows: East Carteret, below 95% capacity; Croatan High School, greater than 105% capacity; West Carteret, greater than 105% capacity. The forecast was based on land use data and historical membership data about how students move through the K-12 system.

“We have monitored those predictions against reality,” said Mat Bottoms, superintendent of Carteret Public Schools.

The study could potentially be invalidated, he said, by Hurricane Florence, a potential influx of a military population from Cherry Point, and the development of Highway 70 connecting Beaufort to Raleigh. Bottoms previously stated that about 100 students had to leave the county because of the hurricane. Military growth and a population bump due to future Interstate 42 are still years away.

When it happens and where it happens is all but certain, but more growth is coming to Carteret, and county schools will have to adjust accordingly. 

Schools in Area 1 – Beaufort and Down East – were forecast to be underutilized through 2026, while schools in the western areas of the county, particularly West Carteret and Croatan, were forecast to be over capacity. Hurricane Florence resulted in the loss of about 100 students county-wide, which may impact the 3-year-old study’s results to some degree, according to Superintendent Mat Bottoms. (OREd study completed in 2016)

East vs. MaST?

With school populations shifting west, East Carteret has been left with a lot of empty classrooms. Conversely, there isn’t much space left at West Carteret and Croatan. Bottoms explained that some infrastructure failed at East Carteret several years ago. They learned it would be costly to demolish the old sections, so they left them standing. 

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But those empty classrooms at East have provoked questions about the use of county resources and fairness in school funding over the years. This summer’s fight over the future of MaST, an early college high school that was nearly closed by the Board of Education after a 4-3 vote in June, reawakened some of those concerns.

The fight for MaST started when it became apparent that $180,000 in state funding wouldn’t be available until after the school year started. Some board members, including Chair Travis Day, cited concerns that the other high schools would be hurt by MaST because of shifts in allocated funds due to reductions in enrollment and loss of teaching positions that could have been funded with MaST money. 

Several parents of MaST students, who declined to go on the record, questioned why East Carteret continues to receive funding in spite of its empty classrooms and declining enrollment. Conversely, some East Carteret parents and teachers, who also declined to go on the record, worried that Day was correct, and that East would be hurt by fewer teachers and lower enrollment due to some Beaufort and Down East students attending MaST rather than East. 

The board eventually decided to open MaST, and state funds are expected to come through this fall. Some teaching positions were lost this year compared to last, but Superintendent Bottoms said MaST is not to blame.

“The seven teachers were not MaST related. It has been said they were but they were not,” Bottoms said.

“Those seven teachers were handled through attrition across the county and were based on reduced student enrollment. Class sizes were kept as small as possible by transferring a few teachers from classrooms with fewer students to classrooms with more students. This was not an easy task but it was taken very seriously and studied intently.”

Is there reason to believe alternative high schools like MaST hurt traditional high schools like East? It depends on who you ask. Locally, there are plenty of “what-ifs,” but little data so far.

Regardless, the MaST discussion has shed much-needed light on the problems facing the county’s eastern school districts – problems that existed long before MaST was even a player.

Shifting Demographics

Carteret County’s population has grown consistently, and it continues to grow – but it isn’t growing across all age groups. In the past few years, the number of school-aged children has slipped, and county school enrollment numbers reflect that decline. 

Since the 2015-2016 school year, the county lost 280 high school students, calculated by ADM, or average daily membership. ADM is a more accurate count of students in a school than student enrollment, and determines things like funding allocation and evaluation of schools.

During that time, East Carteret’s ADM dropped by 105 students, or 16.8 percent. In comparison, West Carteret’s ADM dropped by 100, or 8 percent, and Croatan’s dropped by 80, or 8.6 percent. All high schools are losing enrollment, but East is losing it at twice the rate of the others. 

The explanation for this unevenness between east and west may lie in county infrastructure. One reason for the westward-shifting population could be restrictions on waste management. 

The OREd study mentioned above points out the presence or absence of sewer services as a “Significant Growth Factor.” Using community interviews, the study reports that sewer services would drive growth potential in places like Newport and restrict growth options in non-sewer service areas of the county such as Down East.

A 2015 article by the Coastal Review Online, titled “Private Sewer Plants Could Fuel Development,” explains that land can be developed at higher densities with centralized sewer versus septic tanks. 

The article highlighted a sign in western Carteret County advertising “Sewer Available” which would mean that things like shopping centers and multi-family housing could be built on that land. This possibility for development in the west without comparable opportunity in the east drives populations and economic growth toward western areas of the county.

Another factor may be the cost of water and sewer in the east. Beaufort is infamous for its high water and sewer rates in town. Residents of Eastman Creek Landing, a subdivision up Highway 101, use town water services but do not reside within town limits and must pay higher water and sewer rates than town residents.

Even septic-based development is impeded in Eastern Carteret, especially in low-lying areas Down East and in the northern areas along Adams Creek and South River where flooding can be a septic permit’s death knell.

Redistricting: The Answer?

Superintendent Bottoms said it’s not far down the road that they will have to do something about the changing school populations.

“Our mandate, almost, is at some point we’re going to have to start pushing kids who live in the West back eastward, whether it’s from Croatan back to West or West back to East,” Bottoms said.

Bottoms explained that the most western edge of East Carteret’s school district is Beaufort, where there are a lot of students. In contrast, the most eastern edge of West Carteret’s district is downtown Morehead City, where he said there are fewer than 20 or 25 students. He said they would have to move the district line a long way into the West Carteret district to move enough kids to make it worthwhile.

“Moving 20 kids over four gradespans, that’s you know, five kids per grade, you really haven’t made an impact on either school to amount to much, so you’d have to move the line a long way, and that’s what we saw also between Croatan and West. You’d have to move the line really close to Croatan to make a difference in Croatan’s population as well,” Bottoms said.

Croatan High School was opened in 1998 to relieve overcrowding at West Carteret.

Even though he said county demographics are changing, and redistricting would be the answer to East’s problems, Bottoms rejected the idea of implementing a change in the near future.

“To address East Carteret’s vacancy, it would have to be redistricting. I don’t know how else you would do that. That’s not something we’re looking to do at this point,” Bottoms said.

Currently, the school system takes requests for students to attend schools outside of their district. The Carteret County Public Schools website states that it restricts “School Reassignment Requests” to certain schools to maintain class size balance and prevent overcrowding. It says that requests will not be approved for students to attend White Oak Elementary School or Croatan High School from an outside attendance area.

“Additionally, requests will not be approved for students who live in the Down East area to attend a school other than the one in their attendance zone. This will help maintain class size balances,” the website states.

Down East schools have already had to make adjustments due to declining enrollment in Eastern Carteret County. In 2015, the area’s three kindergarten through grade eight schools – Harkers Island, Smyrna, and Atlantic – were changed to elementary grades only, and Down East Middle School was created to serve the upper grades. The new, combined middle school shares a building with Smyrna Elementary. 

Room for Growth

Redistricting may not be the only potential fix, however. One official voice, that of Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton, rings loud and clear: East is at risk, and needs to be protected.

“We need to do whatever we can to build up East Carteret High School specifically, because that school is the glue that holds the eastern part of the county together,” he said.

Adding additional high schools like MaST in the western areas of the county detract from the east, according to Newton. While he said that he supports parents’ decision to enroll their child in the type of education that is best for them, he sees MaST hurting East Carteret.

But he sees a solution for East’s dropping enrollment that also solves a larger problem the entire county is facing – a lack of skilled workers. Newton said information from the county’s economic development director shows that the county has 1,500 jobs available today, but not enough technical expertise to fill them. 

East Carteret’s future can be secured while filling a void; it can house a high school focused on career and technical education, or CTE, Newton said.

There has been some movement in that direction. In June, Carteret Community College announced that it would offer classes for welding, nurse’s aides, and high school equivalency at the end of the day at East Carteret. Both students and community members can enroll in those classes.

“We don’t need another draw away from the school that will decrease the population again, and we need to build up the strength of those programs, and I do really appreciate that President John Heuser from the community college has incorporated those three programs. How do we do more?” he said.

Liz DeMattia expressed similar ideas about adding vocational training in the public school system. DeMattia, who is the parent of two children in the Carteret County Public School System, works with non-profit schools in the area and is the chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. As the Duke Marine Lab’s Community Science Initiative, she takes the lab’s research into the community.

Like Newton, DeMattia called for development in the eastern part of the county. She said East Carteret needs to provide a draw for out of district students, like vocational training, which would form a cohort of students with different life experiences.

“If we want to attract families and we want to attract professional families,” she said, “the school has to provide those. It has to provide both. Which is hard, but not impossible. And the truth is, separating out kids who are interested in AP from kids who are interested in trade, is not a solution either.”

County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mark Mansfield made similar comments recently about creating an open-enrollment vocational school housed in East Carteret. He said the idea would help alleviate overcrowding issues in the county’s public high schools and use space that already exists without spending additional money on expansions.

“If you make East Carteret open enrollment and a kid, if he wants to choose a career-technical pathway, he would be allowed to be out of district but still attend East Carteret High School,” he said.

During a July interview, Mansfield said he supported the county funding a CTE school housed at East Carteret “100 percent.”

Beyond the Short Term

It’s apparent that the county school system will need to make adjustments of some kind to keep up with changing numbers of school enrollment in the short term. The eastern part of the county isn’t going to experience a population boom of school-aged children overnight. 

But population growth could take a turn in the next several years thanks to the NC Department of Transportation’s plan to transform much of Highway 70 east of Raleigh into a new freeway: Interstate 42. 

NCDOT has solid plans to bring I-42 close to the Craven/Carteret county line, but an official endpoint to I-42 has not been determined. Plans for a future “Northern Carteret Bypass” are still floating around – a freeway that would meet up with I-42 near Havelock, circumvent Morehead City, and link up with the Beaufort Bypass. 

Such a project could mean big changes that the people of Eastern Carteret should be ready to make the most of, Mayor Newton said.  

“There’s a lot of goodness in I-42, and there’s no doubt in my mind–it’s going to happen, and my intent is not to try to derail I-42. My intent is, how do we make the most of the opportunity? How do we plan for this for infrastructure? How do we plan for this to protect our environment?” he said. 

“How do we anticipate, how do we orient for all this new development that’s going to occur?”

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Elizabeth Moore is a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Spanish. In her time as a reporter for The Daily Tar Heel, she has covered activism and protests following racial and religious conflicts as well as student and professor accomplishments. At Chapel Hill, she is an executive leader and barista at The Meantime, a student-run non-profit coffeeshop, and a member of the club swim team. While living in Beaufort this summer, she is working at Black Sheep restaurant and writing for the Eastern Beacon.