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Votes

$848 Million for Schools?

Student growth leads to an increase in capital construction needs for the public schools.

"Sobering" is the word School Board member Thomas Reed (At large) uses to describe the numbers in the superintendent's recommended Capital Improvements Program (CIP).

For the first time, the School Board will be asking the Board of Supervisors, then the voters to approve $200 million in bonds for school construction projects in Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 and again in FY 2006. Since the onset of rapid school growth in the mid-1990s, the highest amount for the annual bonds reached the $100 million range. This year's bond, approved with a 62 percent vote on Nov. 4, was at $27.39 million.

"I don't think the taxpayers will be receptive. We're talking about a $200 million bond referendum," Reed said following the Nov. 11 School Board meeting when Superintendent of Schools Edgar Hatrick presented his recommended CIP and Capital Asset Replacement Program (CARP) for FY 2005-10. "We are going to have to work with Richmond. It is imperative we get some relief because the growth has accelerated."

In addition to the bond requests for future schools, the public school system has 11 school construction projects underway and this year opened five schools and another five schools last year, bringing the total to 61 schools. Another three schools are scheduled to open next year.

THE NEW SCHOOLS accommodate an increasing student population, estimated to expand from 40,750 students this year to 69,700 students in FY 2010. The student growth coincides with an increase in the county's population from 204,000 residents to 300,400 residents during the same time period, as estimated by Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The student population in 1993 was 17,067 students, less than half of what it is this year.

"It's mind-blowing, adding 4,000 students a year," said John Andrews (Broad Run). "We are going to double in 10 years to 80,000 students. ... The growth is coming faster than anticipated."

Andrews and Reed attribute the increase in the growth rate to record-low interests rates. "The county is going to set an all-time record for building permits this year. With that comes children," Andrews said. Reed also mentioned "the panic on the part of some developers who are worried about the current Board of Supervisors changing the rules again" in the county's revised zoning ordinance, he said.

The county issued as many building permits in the first three quarters of 2000 as it did in 1998 and 1999 — 5,000 each year. In the mid-1990s following the recession, the county issued an average of 3,000 permits a year, increasing to 5,000 permits in the late 1990s and jumping to a record 6,100 permits in 2000.

"We're anticipating equaling and breaking the record in 2000," Hatrick said. "Again, we had tremendous growth. Most of our growth occurred after 1995 ... and we're still dealing with that."

HATRICK'S RECOMMENDED CIP for the next six fiscal years totals $848.71 million with the first two years at the highest. FY 2005 is proposed at $220.8 million and FY 2006 at $215.18 million. The proposed cost decreases to the $100 million range for the next three fiscal years and to $46.7 million in FY 2010.

"As we update the CIP each year, [which is] an annual process, our numbers for the future get better," Hatrick said. "We don't see much that is going to abate the rate of growth. What we know is it's not over."

The CIP lists the estimated costs to construct 23 new school facilities, including 15 elementary, four middle and four high schools; provide renovations and additions to seven existing schools; and acquire land for 18 future schools. Four of the schools are scheduled for funding in FY 2005 and another seven in the following year. The schools in FY 2005 include an elementary school in Kirkpatrick Farms west of South Riding and a second one in Brambleton, a middle school in the Ashburn and Dulles area and a high school in western Loudoun, along with renovations at Hillsboro Elementary School, the middle schools and Loudoun County High School. In FY 2006, the new schools include five elementary schools on the Harmony Intermediate School site and in Brambleton, the Leesburg area, the Ashburn area and the Dulles area, along with a middle school in the Ashburn and Dulles area and a high school in the Leesburg area. The renovation projects listed in both years were pushed back a year from the previous CIP.

"I was surprised at the number of schools we had to move up," Andrews said about the seven schools Hatrick moved forward from the CIP approved last year. They include two Brambleton elementary schools; elementary schools at Kirkpatrick Farms and the Harmony site; middle schools in the Ashburn and Dulles area and at Moorefield Station; and a high school in the Ashburn and Dulles area.

After the Board of Supervisors approves the CIP in spring 2004, the projects listed in the first fiscal year, or FY 2005, are placed on a bond that same year in fall 2004. Elementary schools typically can be opened two falls after the bond passes, while middle and high schools take another year.

However, the public school system is running out of proffered sites and does not receive enough land from developers to keep up with the pace of growth, as Hatrick explains in the CIP document, which does not include the proposed costs of land purchases. "The planning time frame for the schools requiring land acquisition has lengthened construction time lines," he writes.

AS OF NOW, the public schools system builds schools to accommodate 800 students at the elementary level, 1,200 students in middle school and 1,600 students in high school.

"With the number of schools we are going to have to build over the next 10 years, we ought to sit down and reevaluate the size of our schools and how we deliver our services," Andrews said.

"I believe that the size of our schools do count. I still believe our school sizes are too large," said Harry Holsinger (Blue Ridge) in response, adding that in the smaller schools in western Loudoun students do not "fall through the cracks."

"Quality education is going to require quality resources. I think everybody knows that," said Warren Geurin (Sterling). "That's going to be challenging because the Board of Supervisors who levy taxes, some of them suggested we are coming into tight budget times because revenues are down. It's going to be a matter of what priorities do we have. Is public education a priority or not?"

Hatrick also presented the proposed CARP, which outlines funds for maintaining and replacing major facility systems in school buildings, including roofs, walls, windows, asphalt, lighting, and mechanical, electrical and heating and ventilating systems. The CARP is for $22.72 million for FY 2005-10, with $2.41 million provided in FY 2005.

The public hearing for the recommended CIP is scheduled on Nov. 25. The School Board will review the CIP in work sessions scheduled on Dec. 1 and Dec. 2 and adopt it on Jan. 13, 2004. In February, the School Board will present the CIP to the Board of Supervisors for final adoption in the spring.

"There will be a lot of hard work on this CIP," Andrews said. "Close to a half-billion on school construction project on the bond referendums over the next two years, that's going to be hard to swallow."