Letter to the Editor by Don Shaw of Woodbridge, Virginia
If you live in Prince William County, regardless of whether or not you have children, you have a vested interest in our public schools. They not only educate our children, they are an engine of our economy; driving businesses and employers and residents to come here. Our public school infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing school age population and we have not only the opportunity but the obligation to address this issue for the good of the community pragmatically rather than dogmatically.
There are currently 211 “portable classrooms” (aka trailers) located outside schools in our county as a result of not enough brick and mortar permanent facilities for our students. Portable classrooms have been a part of the PWCS landscape for as long as I can remember (at least since 1997 when my children started attending Prince William County Schools.) Teachers who work in overcrowded school have colleagues who have no assigned classroom and must transport their “desks” via cart from classroom to classroom. Students who attend overcrowded schools sometimes start lunch as early as 9:30 AM to accommodate the ever-growing population. Students who attend class in trailers are forced to leave the comfort and security of their school of attendance and walk through
Teachers who work in overcrowded school have colleagues who have no assigned classroom and must transport their “desks” via cart from classroom to classroom. Students who attend overcrowded schools sometimes start lunch as early as 9:30 a.m. to accommodate the ever-growing population. Students who attend class in trailers are forced to leave the comfort and security of their school of attendance and walk through weather to attend class. These trailers are drafty and do not afford students the same experience of a promised world class education. From a safety standpoint, crisis management is more challenging, whether during a lockdown, shelter-in-place, tornado, or other event. They were meant to be a temporary solution to provide time for the school system to catch up to the dramatic population growth we have experienced in Prince William County. They have become anything but temporary.
During the 2015 election, I don’t remember any candidate for the school board stating that current class sizes were appropriate or that portable classrooms were an acceptable learning facility. Quite the contrary, all current school board members ran on a platform of reducing class sizes. Yet a year after the current board took office, we don’t see them working to revise or accelerate the Capital Improvement Plan to fulfill that promise and we have yet to see a comprehensive strategy against which we, the voters, can measure progress.
A review of the numbers reveals that the most immediate space needs are for high school seats in the western portion of the county and for elementary school seats in the east. With 34 out of 93 schools over capacity, The Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) recognized the gravity of the situation and approved a bipartisan resolution offering $21.2 million to the school board to do two things: 1) expand the 13th High School by 500 seats and 2) allocate $10.6 million for construction/renovation/etc. in eastern PWC schools. After much acrimony from the school board and guidance from board counsel that it was legal for them to accept the infusion of cash, the school board finally passed a resolution accepting the money, after which the BOCS immediately approved acceptance of the annual debt service and funds transfer.
The problem is that the story doesn’t end there. Rather than build on that success, three members of the school board wrote a letter full of value-laden language to the US Department of Justice asking for an investigation of both the school board and the BOCS alleging a violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.
Their complaint states that the BOCS offered a quid-pro-quo that included funding for a “more expensive and opulent design for a new high school to be built in the predominantly white western portion of the County” in exchange for “an equal amount to be used generally in the predominantly minority eastern part of the County.” The letter alleges, in effect, that the BOCS is establishing an unlawful “separate but equal” policy that spends less per student in the east than in the west.
There is a lot to unpack here. The construction of a 13th high school has been approved by the school board. The “more expensive and opulent design” that the three are arguing against was advocated for by staff because of the much-needed additional 500 seats. Their issue seems to be with the design of the school and not the number of students it would accommodate. So I ask, “more expensive and opulent design compared to what?” According to a staff presentation to the school board in June 2016, they recommended adoption of the PRICE model in part because it reduces the cost per student to build below that of the Battlefield model. Staff also discussed the “modified exterior and simplified architecture” of the PRICE model. This doesn’t sound like an opulent, more expensive model. The funding agreement provides $10.6 million – the difference between the projected cost of the Battlefield model and the PRICE model – for an additional 500 seats in the 13th high school.
At the high school level, Patriot HS (a western school) is over capacity by 694 students, Stonewall Jackson HS (a western school) by 151 students, and Battlefield HS (a western school) by 846 students – 1691 total without one new house being built or one new family moving into that area of the district. The 13th high school is needed to relieve overcrowding at these three schools in particular. It has been delayed twice already and the overcrowding only continues to get worse. It makes perfect sense to build the PRICE model with its additional 500 seats and a lower per-student construction cost in that area, even though it is currently not even scheduled to open until 2021.
What about favoring the “predominantly white western portion of the county”? According to the 2016-17 Student Demographics Report, 68.4 percent of PWCS students are minorities. Of the students who live in western magisterial districts (Brentsville, Coles, and Gainesville), 57 percent of those students are minorities. Where exactly is this predominantly white area of the county of which the three authors speak?
The BOCS also recognized that the overcrowding on the east was at the elementary school level, so they authorized an additional $10.6 million to begin to address this issue. Where in the east should the other $10.6 million be invested? Eastern middle and high school numbers are currently approximately at or below capacity, so I agree the focus should be on elementary schools. At the elementary school level in the east, the magisterial district with the most immediate overcrowding issues is Occoquan, where schools are over capacity by 428 seats, followed by Woodbridge at 258.
Given that Occoquan is experiencing the most overcrowding, where, specifically, should the funds be allocated? A review of the CIP FY 2017-26 provides an understanding of PWCS priorities. Immediately, three candidates become apparent: Antietam ES, Lake Ridge ES, and Springwoods ES are all in the Occoquan Magisterial District. All three are programmed to receive 13 room additions in 2019 and the projects are approximately all the same cost. A review of the enrollment numbers shows that Antietam is 34 students over capacity, Lake Ridge 45 over capacity, and Springwoods 140 over capacity.
With Springwoods ES experiencing the greatest disparity between capacity and enrollment, I recommend accelerating this project from the 2019 opening to breaking ground as soon as possible. The programmed cost of the project is $11,884,000, approximately $1.2 million more than the grant from the BOCS. The PWCS budget shows $22,336,000 in Capital Improvement Reserves (8017) for FY2017, so the shortfall can be made up from there, which is the point of having a capital improvement reserves fund.
The advantage of using the $10.6 million grant plus funds from the Capital Improvement Reserves Fund is that it is fiscally responsible. The school board would pay cash for the project which has a threefold benefit: 1) the additional classrooms relieve overcrowding at Springwoods ES sooner; 2) it would free up funds for other projects; 3) this project would not increase the debt obligations of PWCS. Annual debt service for PWCS in FY2017 is $88.3 million, so we must be willing to find ways of investing in our infrastructure while containing costs.
We have an acute need for space now and that need is countywide. Writing letters to the Department of Justice isn’t solving our space challenges; if anything, it could be making them worse. If the DOJ were to open an investigation, valuable resources would be expended responding to their inquiries, and projects could be delayed; further exacerbating our facilities issues.
We have real challenges here in Prince William County, not the least of which is the need for more classroom space. This $21.2 million infusion to PWCS by the BOCS is a great first start; I only hope that the DOJ letter doesn’t sour the progress that has begun and that the BOCS will be willing to find more out-of-the-box, creative solutions if the school board will not. Rather than reacting to the politics of the present, let’s focus on solving the crises of the future.
Don Shaw is a Democrat who has run for local office in Prince William County. In this piece, he is expressing his opinion, which does not represent any group, organization or political party.
As this is an opinion piece, Bristow Beat, its staff and sponsors do not necessarily agree with the opinion presented.
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