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School Boundary is Approved

It's all over now — including, hopefully, the shouting. The Fairfax County School Board last week adopted the boundaries for the new southwest county middle school, as recommended by the school system's Facilities Planning Services.

"Common sense finally won," said Jill Mullins, parent of a Rocky Run seventh-grader. "There is integrity in the process, and we're so pleased with the outcome."

It means that all the new school's students will go to Centreville High, all of Rocky Run Middle's will go to Chantilly High and all of Stone Middle's will go to Westfield High. Students in the Lanier Middle School boundary will continue to go there and to Fairfax High.

The $25.3 million middle school, on Union Mill Road near Centreville High, will open in September. And it can't happen soon enough for the jam-packed students of Stone and Rocky Run — for whom the new school will bring much-needed relief.

With a building capacity of 975 students, Rocky Run has 1,426 student bodies crammed into the school plus 21 trailers. Stone's building capacity is 1,075, and it has 1,348 students and 17 trailers. Even with the new middle school, said principal Ken Gaudreault, Stone is still expected to have 1,200 students in September and to reach 1,400 in three more years.

During parent work sessions to create the boundaries for the new middle school, Gary Chevalier, director of Facilities Planning Services, told parents that students in the Lanier/Fairfax boundary were not included in the planning because — with the continued growth of western Fairfax County — neither the new school, nor Centreville High just up the street, could adequately handle the additional influx of students.

However, after he presented the boundary proposal to the School Board for approval, a large group of Lanier parents in the Willow Springs area, east of Stringfellow Road, noisily demanded that their children, too, be allowed to attend the new school. They presented their case at the Feb. 21 School Board meeting, but the board ultimately voted to accept the proposal as is.

"What I found interesting is that [the vote] came out 10-0, for all the railing and gnashing of teeth," said School Board Chairman Stu Gibson. "I think the board did the right thing."

The new school will have a capacity of 1,250 students. But Facilities Planning Services projected that, if the Lanier students were included, the school would be seven children above capacity on opening day and nearly 100 above, four years later.

Although board members Mychele Brickner and Rita Thompson (both at-large) were sympathetic to the Willow Springs community, Springfield District representative Cathy Belter said she couldn't ignore the large number of trailers at Stone and Rocky Run, compared to only five at Lanier. And in the end, neither could the rest of the board.

Gibson said it was important that the board members respected the boundary process and also made sure that what was adopted did not adversely affect the new middle school or Centreville High.

Explained Gibson: "My constituents say that, when we open a new school, we need to not overcrowd it at the beginning — especially when we need to give relief to kids who, for too long, have gone to overcrowded schools."

Chevalier was also pleased with the board's actions and said the unanimous vote speaks for itself. "I certainly know where the Willow Springs parents were coming from," he said. "But in the long run, the City of Fairfax plans to renovate and add onto both Lanier and Fairfax High. So when you look at that, in conjunction with our new facilities, you end up with a good situation for everyone."

With a building capacity of 2,125, when Centreville High had 2,700 students, a couple years ago, it had almost 50 trailers. Leaving Centreville alone, said Chevalier, population growth will propel its enrollment nearly 200 students over capacity in five years.

"If we were to move in another 300 students from Willow Springs [on top of that], there would not be space at Centreville High," he said. "It would be 500 or more students over capacity and would be back at the same situation it just got relief from."

As for the new middle school, Mullins said she and other parents know that, even without the Willow Springs students, the new school will someday be overcrowded because of the rampant residential development. This way, she said, "The school will get up and running and kids won't be smacking into each other in the halls. We're glad [the boundary process] is over and we can finally move on."

Union Mill PTA president Eileen Balberde also hopes that things will smooth over between the Willow Springs residents and those who live in the new school's boundary area. "I'm sad about the hard feelings that came about as a result of the process," she said. "But we were all looking out for our children's best interests. I think that's what made people so passionate on both sides — because it hits you right in the heart."

Nick Villanueva of Centre Ridge has a son who'll attend the new school in September, and he, too, empathizes with the Lanier parents. "I can appreciate the stance they were taking," he said. "But it wasn't about individual neighborhoods and people we wanted to exclude — it was about the overcrowding."

However, not everyone in Willow Springs wanted to go to the new school. Donald Hall, president of the Cannon Ridge Civic Association, said several neighbors were "up in arms that an amendment [including Willow Springs] was being considered, but not openly ... so my community asked me to do something."

He attended an ad hoc board meeting, Feb. 14, and said his neighborhood is "considerably closer" to Lanier than to the new middle school and wanted all the Lanier students to go to Fairfax High together and not be split.

But, said Hall, "Had the School Board solicited input from our neighborhood, let us participate and given us alternatives before a concrete plan was on the table, we might have found a compromise."

Willow Springs parent Diane Mortiere was also against an amendment because her seventh-grade daughter is flourishing at Lanier. "She's getting a wonderful education, and we feel fortunate that Lanier gets funding from both the City of Fairfax and the county," said Mortiere. "We're happy to be a part of Fairfax City schools."

She said her family moved here knowing their children would go to Lanier, and distance isn't an issue for them: "Our daughter enjoys her 40-minute bus ride to visit with her friends or do homework." Still, she called the boundary decision "bittersweet" because she feels bad for those who were disappointed.

Villanueva, though, didn't want the integrity of the boundary process jeopardized by an 11th-hour amendment. "I left those boundary meetings with confidence that what we had proposed would actually come to fruition," he explained. "I feel a sense of accomplishment in that the system really did work."

He's also pleased that students at Rocky Run and Stone will "now get a chance to be in a new environment, without crowding, that would be conducive to learning. I'm gratified that things turned out as they did — thank goodness."