CIP Plan for Porter Conversion Sparks Distrust in School Division

| March 20, 2015 | 0 Comments | Education
Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi said he would have liked to have been informed of the moving of the Porter Traditional School program.

Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi said he would have liked to have been informed of the moving of the Porter Traditional School program.

This Wednesday’s Prince William School Board meeting could have been much shorter. The budget was set, and no additions or subtractions were proposed since their work session held the prior Wednesday.

However, a new focus soon arose – an inconsistency on the CIP (Capital Improvement Program). The question was in regards to the Ferlazzo School, an elementary school planned near Spriggs Road in the Coles District.

During citizens time, parents approached the dais with their questions. Was the Ferlazzo School still on the CIP? Did the School Board approve a change? Would Ferlazzo be built, or had it been switched with a new plan to build a replacement Porter School.

Moreover, if the administration had switched the Ferlazzo School with the Porter School conversion: why had they not been informed? Why was their input not sought by the school division? They looked towards their School Board members for answers to these questions and more.

News of the Ferlazzo/Porter switch gained momentum after last week’s Board of County Supervisors meeting. Marty Nohe (Coles-R) and Frank Principi (Woodbridge-D) noticed that the Ferlazzo School was no longer the CIP but was instead replaced with the Porter replacement school.

To Supervisor Principi, this was disturbing because it meant that the sought-after Porter Traditional School would be moving out of his district.

“Quite frankly, it is news to me, and I guess I would have appreciated such a significant decision being shared with me in advance of the public vote,” said Principi. “I believe Mary G. Porter is one of the few high performing schools in the Woodbridge District and I emphasize ‘few.’ Moving Mary G. Porter out of the Woodbridge District causes some consternation among parents. I want to understand and get to the bottom of why this is happening.”

Nohe did not like the change either because Ferlazzo School is in his district, and the school was proffered for use by the residents of his district.

John Wallingford, Director of Financial Services for PWCS explained that the purpose of the swap is to provide more seats for students in the eastern end of the county.

“That project is the closing of the elementary school that currently contains the Porter program. That (first through eighth grade) program is going to be moved to the new facility that we are building that will reside on Liberty Hill Court. The old facility will actually then be renovated and opened as a community school. So what we are actually doing is expanding our capacity on the eastern end of the county by opening a new facility for the traditional program called Porter. That facility will be a little larger, will provide relief and then the other school will provide additional relief.”

After explaining the project, Wallingford confirmed that the project was approved by the School Board with a “Yes, ma’am” to Supervisor Maureen Caddigan (Potomac-R). However, in truth, the swap itself was never formally voted upon, and many School Board members were confused by what was planned on the current CIP that they had to approve this week.

The Ferlazzo School was added to the CIP in the spring of 2014. By January of 2015, the bid was revised to reflect a traditional school. The Porter Conversion was mentioned by staff to the School Board on Jan. 7, but no vote was taken.

Then on Jan. 8, the Principal of Porter Traditional School sent a letter home to parents informing them of the new school location planned for 2016.

On Feb. 7 the Porter Traditional School swap appears on the new CIP list, though the School Board does not make it a centerpiece of their discussions.

According to Associate Superintendent of Finance and Support Services, David Cline, it was also discussed during a CIP meeting held on Feb. 4. Cline said that the Ferlazzo switch was “highlighted” at the Feb. 7 School Board meeting, along with pushing back the 13th high school by one year.

However, School Board members perhaps did not grasp the significance of this change, because few questions were asked. As a result, members of the press (such as myself) did not make the Porter conversion a focus of their articles, leaving the majority of the public also unaware of the school swap. The result is that the change went largely ignored until the CIP was awaiting final approval.

School Board members were unhappy with this result, but some were more unhappy than others. The issue seemed to divide the board into two camps: those who defended members the administration, and those who admonished them. To be fair, this has become a common motif at School Board meetings.

Lisa Bell (Neabsco) was the most disappointed with the way the process had progressed. She said she was ashamed of how the question was handled at the BOCS meeting, because the administration represents her as a School Board member. She said she would not be voting for the CIP on principle.

Meanwhile, Chairman At-large Milt Johns, said he didn’t think the administration had done anything wrong, and if certain staff members had, it is a personnel matter that they should not be discussing on television.

Dr. Michael Otaigbe (Cole) said they should support the administration, and Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) said that she felt it should be the decision of those School Board members whose districts it affects. She said she found it troubling that more research was being done by others outside of the Woodbridge District, represented by Loree Williams.

However, the issue can no longer be confined to a few districts in the eastern end of the county. Blogs are looking intently at this issue. For blogger and their readers, it does not solely affect Porter students or the parents awaiting the Ferlazzo School. It begs the questions what should the process be? When the administration makes a change, should board members be the first to know? And how can the school division make changes in the future while keeping citizens informed? Some went even further, saying the citizens had been lied to and that the school division is purposely not being transparent with citizens nor board members.

Cline explained there was no malice behind the change. It was a move to help them seat more students in schools rather than in trailers. There are very few sites available in order to build new schools in the eastern parts of the county where elementary schools are in high demand. A creative solution was required.

The solution was to make the Ferlazzo site a school that could take students from all over the eastern side of the county. The Porter School, after all, turns away approximately 700 students per year. These students come from various neighborhoods. Additionally, once Porter is moved, that school could be properly renovated and seat students as a community school.

The plan is not perfect. Many Porter parents would not want their children to travel west, and in the future, Porter would become not an eastern Prince William magnet school but a mid-county one. Its population would change. Additionally, people living near the Ferlazzo site feel cheated, because they have been expecting the school since 2013.

There is also the issue, or at least the perceived issue, of traditional schools receiving special treatment by the administration and school board. These schools are run much like private schools. Not every student can attend, thus to attend is a privilege. Even if student acceptance is determined via a lottery, many believe the responsibility of a public school system to prioritize community schools before specialty programs.

Right now, the School Board approved the CIP without naming the school that would be built on the Ferlazzo site. The moving of Porter, is not a done deal, and the community will have a chance to weigh in on which school is built.

© 2015, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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