Two High Schools Yet?

Two High Schools Yet?

Loudoun may get two high schools in the same year after all, as recommended by Supervisor James "Jim" Burton (I-Mercer).

"The social costs of boundary changes is greater than the financial cost of new schools. ... To me, the goal is to establish boundaries with a little more permanence than in the past," said Burton, chairman of the Finance and Government Services Committee.

The committee approved a draft motion March 18 to recommend building both high schools in South Riding and Brambleton in fiscal year 2003 under the county's proposed Capital Improvements Program. The Board of Supervisors took a straw vote approving both schools at a budget work session later that week.

The school district's CIP for fiscal years 2003-08 originally placed funding for South Riding in 2002, a year ahead of the Brambleton school in Ashburn, so that the South Riding school opens in 2005 and Brambleton in 2006.

Burton recommended both schools, which will be built on proffered sites, open in 2005 at a cost of $107.25 million. The committee voted for Burton's second draft motion, which postponed building the Leesburg area high school from fiscal year 2004 to 2006 and deferred the Purcellville area high school off the CIP. The Leesburg area school will cost $63.87 million.

THE FIRST DRAFT motion was nearly the same as the second but included the Purcellville high school in fiscal year 2008, originally proposed for fiscal year 2005. This motion increases the CIP by $18.54 million, while the second motion reduces the CIP by $53.23 million. The school district's CIP as originally proposed is $560.9 million.

"I still don't believe they were being as prudent as they could be," said School Board member John Andrews (Broad Run). "I'm concerned about opening two schools in one year and the costs associated with that."

Andrews said he recommended building the South Riding school first and combining the Purcellville and the Leesburg area high schools into one school, deferring the project for several years.

"I don't believe we need to be spreading these schools all over the place and operating them at less than capacity," Andrews said. "We have to make decisions on what we need versus what we would like to have. Everything comes with a price tag, and you have to pay the bill sometime. The only way to pay the bill is with taxpayer dollars."

Supervisor Mark Herring (D-Leesburg) spoke against opening two schools in one year, citing the cost to taxpayers to open and operate a second school and the School Board's policy to open schools as they are needed as his reasons.

Burton said a change in policy should be considered. "This is the only thing we can do to get ahead of the curve and stabilize it for awhile," he said.

School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling) disagreed. "His solution of opening schools at 40 or 50 percent capacity is something we really need to consider. Asking voters to authorize $100 million of new debt for two high schools that we do not need is asking a lot. Normally, we ask voters to authorize debt based upon need, not based upon getting ahead of the curve, getting ahead on static boundaries and getting ahead on the social costs of boundary changes."

Student enrollment is expected to increase from 34,589 students in 2001 to 54,338 students in 2007, according to projections from Loudoun County Public Schools. Burton said at the March 5 meeting the Board of Supervisors agreed to accept enrollment projections for the first three years.

"The further out you go, the less accurate the projections become," Burton said.

STUDENT ENROLLMENT in 2002 is projected at 37,375 students, increasing to 40,186 students in 2003 and 43,278 students in 2004. The 5,645 new students who are projected to attend schools in 2008 are expected to need 3.9 new high schools, based on a school capacity of 1,445 students, Burton said. The district's six existing high schools have 115 empty seats.

"These ... schools will be bursting at the seems until we open the next school. It appears to me in 2008, all schools will be packed," said Supervisor Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run) at the March 5 meeting. "We've been planning near the nubs for school capacity."

As each of the schools open, boundaries will have to be readjusted, combining the population of a new school with new students and students from existing schools. The last two high schools to open were Stone Bridge High School in 2000 and Potomac Falls High School in 1997, both requiring boundary adjustments.

"I'm prepared to pay a little extra to settle things down in the eastern part of the county," Burton said.

Superintendent Edgar Hatrick said if both schools open in the same year, the School Board will make sure the boundaries are drawn to prevent students changing schools as often if the schools were opened in subsequent years.

Decisions on funding the CIP are made in conjunction with decisions on the county's operating budget, which needs to be approved by April 1. The Board of Supervisors will consider the committee's recommendations by then.