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Middle School Boundary Blues

'Don't Overcrowd Our New Middle School'

Construction is proceeding rapidly on the new $25.3 million southwest county middle school, just up the street from Centreville High. But the battle of its boundaries is far from over.

It's being built to relieve the massively overcrowded Stone and Rocky Run middle schools. And after three work sessions to develop the boundaries, local residents determined it's best if all the new school's students go to Centreville High, all of Rocky Run's go to Chantilly High and all of Stone's go to Westfield High.

Neighborhoods considered most logical to attend the new school were those south of Route 29, south of I-66 and along the Route 28 Corridor south of Route 29. They included Little Rocky Run, Centre Ridge, Crofton Commons, Compton Village, Union Mill, Sequoia Meadows, The Ponds, Centreville Farms, the Meadows, Clifton Townes, Heritage Forest and Green Trails.

But now that this proposal has been presented to the Fairfax County School Board, a large group of parents east of Stringfellow Road is clamoring for its children to attend the new school, too, instead of the one they now attend, Lanier Middle.

The board is scheduled to make its final decision next Thursday, Feb. 21, but it will first allow parents to speak. And there's a rumor that Springfield School Board member Cathy Belter may propose an amendment deleting Centreville Farms and including Lanier students from the Willow Springs Elementary attendance area.

Now the parents who worked so hard to hammer out the boundary plan feel let down and betrayed by the system whose guidelines they diligently followed. And — based on enrollment projections from the school system's Facilities Planning Services — they fear overcrowding at both the new middle school and at Centreville High if the plan's opponents get their way.

"I feel for this population that wants in — it's a great group of parents and kids," said Eileen Balberde, Union Mill PTA president. "It's just the numbers that worry us."

The new school will have a capacity of 1,250 students. But, according to Facilities Planning Services, if the petitioners are included, the school would be seven children above capacity on opening day, this September, and nearly 100 above, four years later.

<mh>Overcrowded

<bt>"I can't believe we'd be leaving Rocky Run — an overcrowded school — to go to a new school that's going to be overcrowded year one," said Little Rocky Run's Jill Mullins, who has a seventh-grader at Rocky Run Middle. "It's very disappointing to me."

Union Mill Elementary's PTA board voted unanimously, last week, to tell the School Board it opposes any amendment to the original boundary proposal, as reviewed and commented on by the public.

"Everyone's impression was that the county was not going to deal with Lanier's boundaries at this time," said Balberde. "It's frustrating when you don't feel like you're being heard. People feel like there's no due process for us as parents, as citizens and as voters. We've encouraged all our parents to contact all the School Board members [and tell them their opinions]."

At the first boundary meeting, Nov. 14, Facilities Planning Services Director Gary Chevalier made it clear that neither Lanier nor Fairfax High (which draws Lanier students) were part of the changes. The Willow Springs contingent — including the communities of Hayden Village, Hampton Chase/Forest and Clifton Farms — voiced its wishes and was angry at being rebuffed.

Meanwhile, parents continued fine-tuning the boundaries at two more work sessions, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12. "Parents didn't want split feeder schools, and we worked hard to come up with a solution," said Little Rocky Run's Diane Belden, whose two children attend Union Mill Elementary.

A public hearing before the School Board was held Feb. 4, and parent Cathy Moraco, who has an eighth-grade son at Rocky Run, thought it would "just be a formality." Instead, she said, the plan opponents "had 80 people who'd organized themselves" [and spoke out]. After the meeting, said Moraco, the opponents told them that a School Board member — they believed it to be at-large representative Mychele Brickner — was going to write an amendment in their favor.

"I couldn't believe we'd gotten this far believing the original plan would be accepted, and now not being able to speak [about the amendment] because the public hearing period was over," said Moraco. "It's sort of sneaky that someone knew an amendment could be written to change the proposal."

Belden, too, said her frustration is with the process: "Everything the parents at these boundary hearings strived for and said was important is now being made null and void. We don't feel that anyone is listening to us — and we're not getting represented."

"We chose Fairfax County because of the schools," said Mullins. "But what's the point of getting involved [with the boundary process] if everything changes at the very end?"

And driving these parents is the threat of the sheer numbers of students that could quickly fill the middle school and Centreville High to overflowing. Centreville got a slight breather when Westfield High opened in September 2000. It has a 2,125 capacity and is projected to have 2,300 students in 2006.

The current proposal — even if an amendment is made — shows the Willow Springs students still attending Fairfax High, but many of their parents have said they'd really like their children to attend Centreville High. After all, it's just a stone's throw from the new middle school. Said Belden: "My feeling is that, once they get into the middle school, they're going to have a more compelling argument to go to Centreville."

But if they do, enrollment projections show them jacking up the population there to 2,560 by 2006, while Fairfax High's enrollment would plummet that year to 1,792 — well below the school's 2,075 capacity.

"I saw Centreville High with trailers, and my son goes to Rocky Run with a population that's outrageous," said Moraco. "I don't want that to happen [again]." She said the Willow Springs contingent doesn't know "what it's like [for a child] to drop a book in the hallway and have 10 people step on it [before you can pick it up] because it's so overcrowded. If we play this numbers game now, we'll be in trouble three to five years down the road."

Also speaking as a parent of a Rocky Run student who'll soon attend Centreville High — plus one already in 10th grade there, Manorgate resident Melissa Milne said it's frustrating that, "if they make this new decision, we'll be overcrowded again, when Fairfax High would be under-enrolled. It doesn't make sense. We don't want to go back to two years ago when Centreville was at 3,000 students."

Rocky Run was built for 900 students, but now has just under 1,500, and Milne fears overcrowding at the new school could someday be "as bad, if not worse," if the Willow Springs students are added. "We've experienced this on this side of the county for years," she said. "It's just unthinkable that they'd pull in another group of kids to a school that was supposed to relieve two other schools."

Milne said the administration is "doing a fabulous job" dealing with Rocky Run's overcrowding, but said "kids can't have backpacks [in the halls] and have to carry around big stacks of books." As for the boundary issue, she said, "People can be advocates for their cause but, at the same time, they have to look at the greater good and the large number of children impacted by the decision. I can't believe Cathy Belter would support [more overcrowded schools]. We've been there, we've done that."

"I don't have a problem with the Willow Springs people, themselves," said Belden. "It's a phenomenal school with wonderful, supportive parents." She's worried about the large influx of new students that area represents. "Belter can say they're not going to go to Centreville High, but I don't know who'll be on the board in two years and what their feelings will be."

Mullins' children will go to both the new middle school and to Centreville High, and she just hopes they'll "get an education where teachers have time to teach, instead of being busy managing overcrowding." So does Moraco and, in her third year on the county's Parent Advisory Council, she has a better understanding of school-funding formulas from Richmond than does the average parent. So she knows the importance of making wise decisions affecting school enrollment.

"People don't understand that the funds we vote on today won't be used for years," she said. "They think the [school] bond they voted on for this year is for this year, but it's not — it's five to 10 years out. So as we grow in population, we're going to have the same problems that we've had." That's why, said Moraco, it's critical to "efficiently appropriate children to schools so they won't be overcrowded in a couple years" — because there's no relief in sight.

"If you start off with some schools overcrowded and some under capacity, it's not fair — and it'll just get worse because our population continues to grow," she said. "I can't believe a school board would approve something that would mess our kids up again."