According to planner Andrew Reilly, a longtime trend could finally be reversing: Families may be getting larger.
Speaking to the crowd at an Orchard Park forum on developing a master plan, Reilly was questioned on whether school crowding really is an issue or has the student population in the Orchard Park Central Schools remained stagnant.
Reilly said that while the student population has rebounded from a low of 4,200 in the early 1990s to the mid-5,000s today, it is only slightly larger than the 5,100 students the district had in 1982.
But the potential is there for big increases, he said, both in Orchard Park and throughout Western New York.
"You have more houses, and the only thing that kept the population down was less children in the house, less people in the houses," Reilly said. "Well, the year 2000 census is going to be a big awakening for people."
He said the average number of children per household had fallen from 2.3 to 1.2 over the past couple of decades. But with the number of houses increasing, the effect on the overall population was negated and populations in towns such as Orchard Park stayed relatively stable.
That's no longer happening, he said, and an increase in the average number of children in a household to even 1.5 could result in the school district growing by more than 1,000 students.
Reilly said he was basing his observation on conversations with several school districts, not just Orchard Park. His other clients have included Hamburg, Eden and Evans.
"All the school districts that I've been dealing with in this area show those numbers beginning to rebound," he said. "So I think the 2000 census is really going to show that happening, that number changing."
Results from the census are unlikely to confirm or disprove Reilly's conjectures or the effects of the population increases before the school district holds a referendum next spring on building a new high school to remedy overcrowding.
Orchard Park School Superintendent Charles L. Stoddart said indications are that incoming classes will be growing.
"We have a little dip right now in 4-, 5-, 6-year-olds," Stoddart said. "Then we have an increase we think we're seeing in ages 3, 2, 1."
Stoddart said increases are also happening at higher grade levels because many of the people buying new homes in Orchard Park have older children.
The town has been averaging about 100 new homes per year, though Stoddart said he is concerned about the impact of roughly 360 new homes that are near approval stages in the district, including one development in West Seneca.
Reilly said that while some might see his use of school district figures as skewing the results in a community where the school board favors a new school, he sees no better source of data.
"They're the only ones who go out in noncensus years and count your younger-age children who will enter the school system," he said. "They're going door-to-door and counting them. Everybody else just uses projections and statistics."
Stoddart said that Orchard Park, like all school districts, had been required to do annual surveys to determine special education needs and that they were also used to count overall population. He said New York State laws had been changed, so the counts have to be done only every other year, and the district is going to a mailed survey to save money.