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Utah public schools add 10,500 students in 2016

SALT LAKE CITY — Schools are bursting at the seams in the Jordan School District and in other pockets across the state.

But, thankfully, said district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf, voters had mercy on the growing system, successfully passing a $245 million bond Tuesday in this year's general election.

"We had to find a way to build new schools to accommodate the new growth," Riesgraf said.

In all, Utah's approximately 1,085 public schools added 10,580 students this year, bringing the total enrollment count to 644,476, according to numbers released Thursday by the Utah State Board of Education. The growth represents a 1.67 percent increase over last year's enrollment.

The growth is happening in more populated areas and places where houses are being built in droves, said Mark Peterson, State School Board public relations director.

"We're at the tail end of the Great Recession population," Peterson said, a time when families held off on having as many kids due to financial concerns.

Historically, enrollment growth had been greater — as high as 3 percent in 2006, when 15,648 students joined Utah schools. Enrollment growth has remained "fairly flat" in recent years, likely because of those recession years of economic woes, Peterson said.

Growth is expected to continue to climb in the coming years, as "those kids are already here but just haven't turned 6 yet," Peterson said, adding that per pupil funding, in which Utah ranks last among all states, continues to be a problem.

"It remains a continual challenge for the state to fund public schools, especially when 1 of every 5 Utahns is a public school student," he said.

Growth and providing for the children coming into the system is an ongoing priority for the board when asking for funding from the state Legislature every year. The growth typically gets funded, though that doesn't leave much for other things schools and districts need to facilitate learning.

"We don't turn children away," Riesgraf said. "We like children. We are in the business of educating children. We love the growth, but children deserve to have adequate space to be educated in."

Overcrowding at various schools within the Jordan district has limited access for students in extracurricular programs, specifically in the secondary schools, but it also has made it difficult to get around between classes, and before and after school.

"If this bond didn't pass, we'd certainly be looking at more portables, more boundary adjustments, busing kids to other schools that aren't quite as crowded and creating additional year-round schools," Riesgraf said.

The district has already redrawn school boundaries 15 times over the past couple years and has instituted a dozen year-round schools, increasing a school's capacity by 25 percent, she said. Jordan also has created a pilot program where kids start school at different times to allow for smaller class sizes at certain times of the day.

Bidding and construction on the new schools will begin "right away," Riesgraf said, to accommodate areas where school capacities are under pressure, including two new middle schools in West Jordan and South Jordan, and a new high school on the Herriman-Riverton border.

"We are so grateful taxpayers saw the growth and saw the need, and really looked at the future of children and of education," she said. "These new schools will impact children in this district for years to come."

Enrollment growth is calculated through a statewide school census conducted every year on Oct. 1.

The five largest school districts, where growth is happening faster than everywhere else, are the Alpine, Davis, Granite, Jordan and Canyons districts. Growth is slower in the smaller school districts of Daggett, Tintic, Piute, Wayne and Rich counties.

Charter schools grew this year by 5.9 percent to 71,494 students statewide at 116 schools. Charter school enrollment accounts for 11 percent of Utah public school enrollment, according to the state board.