Union County school board members call hundreds more Waxhaw homes ‘foolish undertaking’

Union County school board members are publicly criticizing the town of Waxhaw’s willingness to entertain large development projects that could add to already-crammed schools in the area.

Gary Sides, who has served on the Union County Public Schools’ Board of Education since 2014, spoke at two different meetings this month — the school board and Waxhaw Board of Commissioners — about his displeasure with plans that could see hundreds of homes built within the city limits.

Sides and UCPS board chair Kathy Heintel say the plans will bring families with school-aged children to the district and that the district has no room to put them in the Waxhaw area.

“I would not support any type of student realignment to accommodate, in my opinion, this foolish undertaking,” Sides said during the school board meeting Sept. 6. “This many homes, and undoubtedly this many students, is going to cause the need for an entirely additional cluster — high school, middle school and at least one elementary and maybe more. Folks, everybody in Union County is going to be sharing the pain.”

Teachers and children arrive for the first day of school at Waxhaw Elementary School on Monday, August 28, 2023.
Teachers and children arrive for the first day of school at Waxhaw Elementary School on Monday, August 28, 2023.

Waxhaw is already considering Adelina, a project that would bring nearly 500 homes. American Engineering also has proposed the project Polo Grounds, a large mixed-use plan that would include miles of greenway trails, parks, shops, restaurants and homes that could bring hundreds, maybe thousands, more people, according to the plan. The project’s website states the development team is “collaborating with town staff to create the best project possible.”

Waxhaw Mayor Ronald Pappas and the town board of commissioners in a joint statement to The Charlotte Observer say they share the citizens’ concerns about the potential impacts that ongoing and future development projects may have on UCPS.

Town officials also say the Polo Grounds project is not under consideration because the developer’s application was not complete. They say completed applications are reviewed by town planning staff and distributed to outside partnering agencies, including NCDOT, Duke Energy, and UCPS.

The joint statement said, “After review, town planning staff would make their recommendations on any project based on comments from our outside partnering agencies and if the project meets all town requirements.”

While Waxhaw commissioners make the final decision on projects, the school system will have to figure out where to send new residents’ kids.

Sides says he plans to fight any attempt at redistricting to support the new developments.

“I am not going to move existing UCPS families to make room for new ones,” Sides said.

Pappas and Waxhaw’s commissioners say they have seen the increasing strain on the school system, and it’s “a concern.”

“We are particularly concerned about UCPS’s reliance on bonds for funding,” the joint town statement reads, “and note with concern that while bonds have been approved for projects, implementation has faced obstacles such as sewer constraints, preventing the realization of these essential facilities.”

Meeting scheduled this week

A day after Heintel and Sides spoke at a town commissioners meeting Sept. 12, Waxhaw’s planning board scheduled a special meeting for this Thursday. Among the agenda items: conditional rezoning for Adelina, a residential and mixed use development that includes 486 single family homes off of Providence Road South.

A public hearing on the development is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 10.

If Adelina is approved, Heintel told commissioners Sept. 12, those families will be districted to Marvin schools, where both Marvin Ridge middle and high schools are at or above capacity.

Heintel asked: “How can we put students from 480 houses into the Marvin cluster?”

Waxhaw schools at capacity

Students arrive for the first day of school at Waxhaw Elementary School on Monday, August 28, 2023.
Students arrive for the first day of school at Waxhaw Elementary School on Monday, August 28, 2023.

U.S. Census estimates have consistently listed Union County among the fastest growing in North Carolina and the United States, according to the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

In the past 30 years, Union County has added more than 150,000 residents. It’s projected to add nearly the same amount in the next 30 years, according to its 2050 Union County Comprehensive Plan.

Waxhaw’s population has more than doubled from April 2010 to April 2020, U.S. Census data reports, and it estimates the town’s population climbed 9.7% from 2020 to 2022.

That growth and talk of adding more development projects led to concerned residents questioning town officials, including Pappas, about school planning at a Waxhaw Town Hall forum in August.

Of eight elementary schools that include Waxhaw students, three are over capacity and the rest are nearing capacity, according to a UCPS 2022-23 enrollment data report. Kensington Elementary is at 138% capacity. All three middle schools are either slightly over or nearing capacity, and both Cuthbertson and Marvin Ridge high schools are over capacity. Parkwood High, the only other high school that draws Waxhaw students, is at 77% capacity.

Enrollment district-wide is forecast to decline each year by less than 1% across the next 10 years, according to a McKibben Demographic Research report presented to the school board May 2. It is unclear if yet-to-be approved developments are included in that forecast.

“Waxhaw is at capacity,” Heintel told Pappas and commissioners Sept. 12. “We worked hard on moving new developments where there was capacity so that families wouldn’t worry about redistricting. It seems that one town can change it all. We are all elected officials, and our residents are your residents. They don’t want redistricting.”

‘Transportation nightmare’

Timing is making the situation worse in Waxhaw, too.

UCPS falls in the top 10 in the state with facility needs above $400 million, and the district already has a 10-year bond plan in place. The long range plan addresses multiple older high school buildings, including the decades-old Parkwood High, additional land and a replacement building.

Cuthbertson and Marvin Ridge high schools are newer buildings and not on a list to add facilities to accommodate more students. The 10-year plan includes the $134 million bond Union County voters approved in November that will replace buildings at East Elementary in Monroe and Forest Hills High in Marshville.

“We have a long range plan. We should continue working on our older high schools,” Sides said. “I’m not going to shove them out of line for a new cluster.”

Sides says the earliest the district would be able to propose another bond package for school construction in Waxhaw is 2030. And even if voters approve money, the need for land would be close to 200 acres.

“Will your developer give us that? Sides said. “Will the town buy it for us? I would dare say you wouldn’t get students into (a building) until 2034. So, what do we do in the meantime?”

The answer, Sides proposes, is forcing students to schools that have room: the Marshville area of Union County (where Forest Hills High is located and west of Waxhaw) and Monroe. Marshville is more than 35 minutes from Waxhaw. Busing students that far would mean having to set up transportation hubs, where parents would be responsible for getting their child to the hub, and the district’s buses would pick them up from there.

“That’s an absolute transportation nightmare,” Sides said.

Heintel at the meeting Sept. 12 told the mayor and commissioners discussion needs to happen in person “instead of posting on Facebook.”