A New School on Madison’s Far West Side: A Long Term Perspective

On November 7, Madison area residents will be asked to vote on a referendum concerning our local schools. While the referendum has three parts, this paper will focus on the first part – the construction of a new school on the far west side, representing over 75% of the total cost of the referendum.

This report will argue that the most important determinant of whether or not a new school should be built on the far west side (or anywhere else in the district), is whether the long-term outlook clearly indicates it is appropriate. Otherwise, the problem should be considered temporary, with temporary measures pursued to address it. However, the situation here suggests strongly that the problem is a more permanent one, requiring a “permanent solution”, the building of a new school.

This report will not attempt to forecast specific enrollment figures for the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) – such an effort would take several months to do properly. Instead, it will focus on the TRENDS that support the conclusion a new school is warranted.

Capacity Constraints – Current Forecast

The charts below compare the MMSD’s enrollment projections with current capacity, by school. They are sorted by middle school area. When, for example, it shows Leopold at +76 in 2009, it implies that current projections show that school being over-capacity by 76 students in the 2009-10 school year.

Without a new school, Stephens and Chavez will likely face overcrowding substantially worse than that experienced at Leopold today. Meanwhile, Crestwood, Falk and Huegel also face capacity pressures.

Long Term the Key

The situation over the next several years is disturbing. The West & Memorial Area Attendance Task Force examined it thoroughly over a several month period, with significant public input. A new school on the far West side, as well as a modest improvement and expansion of the Leopold campus, was their best proposed solution.

Nevertheless, some question whether a new school is appropriate, particularly given underenrollment on the near East side, a slowing housing market, and the substantial cost involved.

It is difficult to predict with precision what will happen from one year to the next. MMSD’s 3-5 year enrollment projections portend serious overcrowding. Nevertheless, one must be cautious about building a new school unless it can be clearly demonstrated that it will be needed in the long-term, more than five years out (preferably 10-20 years out, or longer).

The long-term is the key. New schools will be in place for decades to come. Boundary changes are in effect for years, and hard to reverse. The rest of this report will look at MMSD’s long-term picture, and will focus on three areas that shed ligwest side:

  1. Population growth in the Madison area
  2. Potential growth & development on the far west side
  3. Demographic trends pertaining to the numbers of elementary school age kids

1. Madison Population Growth

Madison’s population is projected to increase by over 33,000, or about 15%, over the next twenty years. Meanwhile, the populations of Fitchburg and Verona are each anticipated to grow at 2-4 times the rate of Madison itself.

It’s not surprising Madison’s population has been growing so steadily, given the area’s offerings: an attractive environment, a diverse economy, good schools and a family-friendly place to live. This continued area growth is vital to the question at hand, for it underlays the argument enrollment will continue to increase for years to come.

2. Potential Growth & Development on Far West Side

The Beltline runs essentially east-west on the south side of Madison. South of the Beltline, and to the west of Verona Rd (Route 18), the MMSD comprises an area of approximately 26 square miles. Imagine High Point Road (just before the Beltline hooks north) extending due south all the way to the furthest reaches of the district, virtually on the outskirts of the city of Verona.

For the table below, MMSD student count data was set against a map of the MMSD boundaries. While the map shows a cluster of schools on the eastern half of this southwestern corner of the MMSD, it is apparent there is potential for many more students to move into the area west of the imaginary High Point Rd line.

The Madison Planning Commission projects 13,000 homes over the next several decades on the far west side of town, with their forecast obviously applying to a far west area larger than the simple area described here. It is extremely easy to imagine many more hundreds of elementary school kids moving into, and growing up in, that far west corner of the district. Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult to imagine that not happening.

3. Demographic Trends – by age

To understand demographic trends concerning age, and their impact on school enrollment, it will be helpful to look at the number of infants (less than 1 year old) in the United States since World War II.

While one can question whether infant count will continue to rise steadily through 2030 (it is difficult for the Census Bureau to try to time another drop), it is significant births have been increasing for the past 9 years, with no sign of soon reversing.

3. Demographic Trends – by age Elementary School

Elementary school children are typically 5-10 years of age. This chart shows that age cohort for the US, expressed as a percentage of the 2005 count; (all charts hereafter will be expressed as a percentage of 2005, to permit comparison across different measures).

The MMSD elementary school enrollment has conformed to the general US pattern, although with more gyrations, and a tendency to lead the nation by about 2-5 years (perhaps because it is a university town).

Madison birth counts serve as a pretty good predictor of MMSD school enrollment. Here, elementary school enrollment is compared with the count of Madison births for the prior 5-10 year period (e.g. Madison births for 2005 equals total births for 1995 to 2000 period).

3. Demographic Trends – by age Middle & High School

The decline in births in the early 1990’s in Madison, as well as throughout the country, explains much of why MMSD middle and high school enrollments have been declining. We can expect their enrollments to continue declining a few years longer – and then to follow the upward path already established at the elementary school level.


The trends described above lead to a very clear conclusion: a new school on the far west side will be required in the long term.

  • An attractive setting, a healthy and diverse economy, and a family-friendly setting combine to suggest population growth will continue to occur in Madison and in the area covered by the MMSD.
  • Madison Planning Commission forecasts, and many square miles of developable land, point to much future population growth in the far west side.
  • The demographic age cycle, which can be traced back to the beginnings of the baby boom, help explain enrollment cycles over the past 60 years. Those cycles, in turn, support expectations of continued increases in elementary enrollment for some time to come.

  • While this report has not looked at the East side, the trends described here suggest that elementary school enrollment will increase there as well: development continues apace, notwithstanding the housing slump; enrollment has been up the last two years, (and had been declining at a much slower pace the three years prior).

Delaying construction of the far west school would seem advisable if there was a potential for flat elementary school enrollment in the next 5-10 years, or if the pressures on existing structures were not already significant and showing signs of soon becoming substantially worse, or if the cost of construction might suddenly decline. But as none of these elements are evident, and other serious and contentious matters remain, delay seems distinctly unwise.

108 PDF Version of this Report.

10 thoughts on “A New School on Madison’s Far West Side: A Long Term Perspective”

  1. With all due respect to the insight and hard work of Peter and many, many other planners, the assumptions underlying Peter’s analysis rest on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, a very unlikely eventuality.
    While fossil fuel (petroleum and natural gas) prices have dropped in the last month or so, the geological certainty of the decline in availability will push prices higher than any we’ve seen so far. With higher prices, growth will contract significantly, because people cannot cut back on expenditures for gasoline and natural gas (unless they take up walking or decide to set their thermostats permanently at 60 degrees). Instead of cutting back on fossil fuel use, consumers will cut back on new cars, new housing, and large consumer goods, exactly the items which drive growth.
    Only the timing of the end of cheap oil remains in doubt. The “pessimists” say the end began last year (literally), while the “optimists” say the decline will begin in 10 or 20 or 30. Either way, the current cycle of growth, which seems so permanent, will end.
    Take away cheap oil, growth ends, contraction begins, and, therefore, no need for a west side school.
    Link to such sites as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (http://www.peakoil.net), The Oil Drum (http://www.theoildrum.com), and the Post Carbon Institute (http://postcarbon.org) to learn more about the coming end of cheap oil.

  2. I agree oil prices will one day be much higher, though I doubt it will be as soon as you suggest. But if they did come tomorrow, then the far west school would probably be needed more than ever. Why? Because arguably the alternative is for people to live even further out, in Verona, Sun Prairie, etc. Most of the land inside the Beltline is already accounted for; new residences would require building upwards, a shift in design and lifestyle unlikely to take place overnight, $5+ per gallon oil notwithstanding.
    I too would much prefer building up, rather than out; it is perhaps my biggest qualm with so supporting this referendum. But I take some consolation from the thought that lacking a new school on the far west side would only push people even further out, thus exacerbating the population spread issue. Thus, in a rather convoluted way, voting for the referendum might actually be a vote for slightly reducing urban sprawl. It just seems the closer you get to town, the less land is taken up per new home constructed.

  3. A reader asked if Peter was consulting for the Madison School District. I asked him and the answer is no. Peter has done some great work for our community:
    Wisconsin Academic Decathlon:
    Comparing Low Income with Teacher Attributes:
    MMSD Enrollment & Capacity: A Perspective
    Comments on Budget Transparency:
    More here:

  4. i, too, appreciate peter’s work, developing and sharing information allowing for deeper discussions.
    i’m not sure how far off higher oil prices are either. however, rather than simply going straight up and staying there, they will likely go up and down. even so, today’s prices for gasoline are much lower (in real dollars) compared to gasoline prices in the 1920s.
    for the u.s., our country’s risk is its dependence upon foreign oil and competition from country’s whose demand for oil is also growing. my 1988 dissertation focused on oil production from the u.s. giant oil fields, which were discovered in large part in the 1930s. these fields continue to provide a large portion of u.s. annual production, but production from these fields peaked in the early 1970s and continues to decline even with the occasional discovery of a supergiant such as prudhoe bay that came on line in the late 1970s. new domestic oil discoveries will not change the downward trend for annual u.s. oil production.
    so, we’re more likely to see fluctuations due to supply/demand changes complicated by political overtones, which, as we well know, have been extremely costly for the u.s.
    if gasoline prices rise and stay up there, people will change their driving habits. i would suggest that folks will think more about the trips they make before thinking about moving, per se. however, folks will want to be closer to work if they have the option as gasoline prices rise.
    however, i don’t think we can simply assume that the economic nexus will continue to be madison. in the short run, perhaps yes. but in the long term, we are likely to see the effect of epic systems location on where people live, businesses develop, etc. but that is far off (should be part of long-term planning) and does not affect the decision needed this fall to build a new school given the decisions the school board has made and the information that has been presented to the public.
    for me, it’s about what do the kids need now given the decisions the adults have made with the information they received.

  5. County home sales remain down, reports The Capital Times.
    “There were 443 sales of homes and condominiums in Dane County in September, a stunning 53 percent below a year ago and 29.2 percent fewer than two years ago, the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin reported. Year-to-date through September, the 5,714 sales were 12.6 percent below a year ago and 6.5 percent fewer than two years ago.”
    Not only will gasoline prices slow growth, but the cost of heating homes and schools will increase dramatically as natural gas suppliers find it more difficult, i.e., expensive, to match demand.

  6. Home sales might be down, but I believe a big part of home sales during the low-interest good-economy heyday of a couple years ago were due to people relocating within our community…upsizing if you will. We still had normal growth of new families moving in to our area, but today, we have similar numbers of new families, but less of us are looking for an upgrade with the higher interest rates. We don’t want to abandon our 5.25% loans.
    So I believe the stats are skewed due to that bubble.
    But the Collaboration Council and the City all project thousands of new homes being built, and we still see construction all around us. Give it a year or so….the real estate market will ramp back up once interest rates some down a bit and the communities that are being built and planned right now begin to mature, grow and become more attractive.
    We are still an attractive community to people outside of our community. One large company could move in and it could change everything.
    I am an optimist, but there are no signs that tell me, as a parent, homeowner and business owner, that I should be concerned about the future of the economy in Dane County. In fact, the outlook is pretty rosey, in my opinion.
    Therefore we need a new elemetary school, the addition to Leopold, and a small refinancing in order to maintain a strong school district for the long term.
    Vote YES for schools.
    Rich Rubasch

  7. At a building industry related conference yesterday, I heard a comment that a major area builder faces severe financial pressure, largely from its lenders, because the builder has 600 unsold housing units.
    If the school is built, I can forsee the prospect that it will never reach its capacity because the U.S. (and Madison) economy cannot continue to grow at the current pace for a variety of global factors well beyond our control. In other words, the straight line upward projections of growth are just not likely to continue.

  8. Mr Blume:
    Increased gasoline prices will likely cause population shifts toward employment centers (i.e., urban areas) because commuting from suburbia/exurbia to work will become prohibitively expensive for many. So peak oil could very well cause Madison’s population to grow faster not slower.

  9. We can only guess at the economic and social reaction to the end of cheap oil. It may well be that Madison grows, but I’d expect the growth to be near areas where people can shop and work, probably not on the outskirts. I wouldn’t expect too many more developments like Hawks Landing, for instance, since people in those homes have to drive to get anything more than a place to sleep. Additionally, jobs might move out of Madison to Waunakee, Verona, Mount Horeb, so that people who live in those outlying areas would no longer need to commute into Madison to work. We’re definitely on the cusp of dramatic changes. The lives of our children will be very, very different than ours.
    The new elementary school, despite the various scenarios for the future, rests on the untenable assumption of straight line growth fueled by cheap oil.
    To learn more about the end of cheap oil and the coming changes, you might want to see a showing of “The End of Suburbia,” at 10:00 a.m., November 11, at the Promega BTC Auditorium, 5445 E. Cheryl Pkwy, Fitchburg. The West Waubesa Preservation Coalition (www.westwaubesa.org) is sponoring the screening.

  10. Based upon the task forces’ work, forecasts and discussions of those forecasts at the School Board, I am supporting the referendum. I support all three parts of the one referendum, including moving capital expenditures to long-term financing.

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