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School system knows growth all too well

POSTED: April 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Hall County’s population growth numbers released Thursday were hardly surprising for those who bear the brunt of new arrivals.

For Gainesville City Schools, the 4.5 percent overall population growth seen between July 2006 and July 2007 was less than what it has seen.

"I wish our growth was only 4.5 percent," said Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe, whose system, at about 7 percent annual growth, continually ranks among the fastest-growing in the state.

The Hall County Schools System is experiencing annual growth numbers closer to the 4.5 percent figure, though like the city school system, "a tremendous percentage" of the growth comes from new Hispanic students, Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

In the past 10 years, the number of white students and black students enrolled in the county’s public schools has stayed virtually the same, while Hispanic student numbers increased from 2,600 to 8,600, or 33 percent of the system’s 25,490 students.

Gainesville schools are now about 59 percent Hispanic, Ballowe said.

In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Hall County was 24 percent Hispanic, compared with Georgia’s overall percentage of 6.8 percent Hispanic residents.

Doug Bachtel, a demographer with the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, cautioned against assuming that the majority of the 7,000-plus new residents to move to Hall in a year’s time were Hispanic.

"We don’t know that," he said. Pointing to the 24 percent Hispanic estimate for Hall County, Bachtel noted, "Demographic trends move at the speed of a retaining wall."

Bachtel did note that as a population, Hispanics are generally undercounted by the census.

Bachtel called Hall’s 4.5 percent growth "a pretty hefty growth rate."

He attributed it to a diversified economy, the area’s proximity to both the mountains of North Georgia and Atlanta, and educational opportunities.

The bottom line, however, is jobs.

"In order to grow, you need two things," Bachtel said. "One, you need jobs. The other thing is available and affordable housing. If people don’t have a place to live, they’re going to commute in and get the job and take their paycheck back with them."

"It’s not really surprising," Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper said of Thursday’s numbers. "We know we’ve had tremendous growth, not in just the last few years, but in the past couple of decades. But I would think in the last five years, it really seems to have accelerated."

"It’s a challenge any time you have that type of increase," said Hooper, whose department is continuously evaluating its manpower and calls for service numbers to keep on top of the demands that come with growth.

In the school systems, more students mean more portable classrooms.

"It has really presented a challenge to us as far as space and opportunities," Ballowe said. "Without a doubt, it’s been very difficult for us to keep up."

Both school superintendents said, however, that the growth numbers were positive signs of a strong local economy.

"There are challenges, but they’re good challenges, versus a shrinking population," Schofield said.

Said Bachtel, "There are downsides to growth, but it’s better than the alternative."



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