July 18, 2008

Elkhorn Schools Plot Possible Path to 18,000

By Chip Olsen, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 18--Officials with the Elkhorn Public Schools picture a time when the district's enrollment could rival that of Millard.

The district has laid out no timetable of when it expects to be fully built out -- possibly with four high schools, six middle schools and 18 elementary schools -- but officials have mapped out areas where schools in the fast-growing district might be situated.

"It sneaks up on you 300 or 400 students at a time," said Superintendent Roger Breed.

According to a recent study, the district someday could have more than 18,000 students, compared with about 4,600 today, with most of the growth occurring north of West Maple Road.

"Realistically," said Steve Baker, associate superintendent, "there is no reason to think that someday the Elkhorn school district could not be as big as Millard Public Schools."

Millard has about 22,000 students and includes three high schools, six middle schools and soon-to-be 25 elementary schools.

The Millard district covers a smaller area -- 35 square miles -- and has little undeveloped land, said Jon Lopez, a Millard administrator responsible for tracking the district's growth. The district is about 10 years from being built out, he said.

The Elkhorn district covers 48 square miles, one-third of which is developed. If built to capacity, Elkhorn could be one of the largest school districts in Nebraska, Baker said.

Elkhorn has a single high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools. A second high school and a seventh elementary are scheduled to open in two years. The Elkhorn school board on Monday approved spending $2.3 million for land north of West Dodge Road near 184th Avenue for a seventh elementary school.

In 2011, a third middle school will open. The study by Omaha architectural firm DLR Group mapped out areas where new schools might be situated.

Elkhorn's potential for growth didn't surprise Becky Evans, a district resident. She is concerned, though, about the cost of new schools and the area growing much larger than it is now. She said the small-town atmosphere has disappeared.

"I hope it doesn't turn into another Millard," she said.

Dale Nielsen of the DLR Group said the study took into account the number of existing subdivisions, available lots, preliminary plats and the city's plan for future land use, though the projections still are a bit of a guessing game.

Breed said the number of homes under construction in the area has slowed slightly with the recent housing downturn, but enrollment continues to increase. It's possible, he said, that as older families move out of the district, younger families are moving in.

The study identified future school locations throughout the Elkhorn district. The largely undeveloped area north of West Maple Road could gain 13 schools, including two high schools.

Elkhorn officials prefer to limit high schools to about 1,500 students.

Ann Long, president of the Elkhorn school board, said the need for schools in the northern section will increase over time, but right now the district's attention is focused on its central core.

Enrollment is projected to reach 4,900 in the next school year and more than 5,500 by 2010-11. Fifteen years ago, Elkhorn had about 2,100 students.

"Probably sometime between '92 and '95, things really started to boom," Breed said.

That was when Omaha's development began to creep closer to the district's eastern border.

A thriving housing market along with large commercial developments -- including the Village Pointe shopping center -- along West Dodge Road created an effect beyond enrollment. The district's assessed valuation grew from about $300 million in the early 1990s to nearly $3 billion today.

"We used to be a kid-rich, property-poor school district," Breed said. "The situation today is we are kid rich and property rich."

--Contact the writer: 444-3198, [email protected]


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