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Voters Asked to Approve Bonds for Schools

Four years ago Westfield High School in Chantilly opened its doors and welcomed 1,600 students to the brand new school. The school was built to handle a capacity of about 2,500 students and opened without a senior class.

Even before the first bell rang, the PTSA officers began lobbying the Fairfax County School Board and Board of Supervisors to have the school added to the capital improvement plan (CIP) that sets the priority of the school system's renovations and upgrades.

"It was clear to us, that within three years, we knew we would be overcrowded," said Birgit Retson, the Westfield PTSA president. "And we said we need to start to do something about it now."

The organization's predictions were more accurate than they would have liked. Retson said the school has an enrollment of about 2,930 students and has 14 trailers providing the needed classroom space. Projected enrollment will climb another 200 students next year.

If the proposed school bond referendum passes in November, Westfield would be in line to gain a 24-classroom addition. The CIP projects the addition to be completed by fiscal year 2006.

"The school has added lockers to every inch available. We have a one-way hallway in front of the cafeteria, so the kids can get in and out," Retson said. "We don't want to end up with 51 trailers, which has happened in our area because of the growth."

SCHOOL BONDS are essentially the funding for the capital improvements program. The school system has been on a cycle of requesting a bond referendum every two years, coinciding with local elections. The amounts of the referendum have varied — $204 million in 1995, $232 million in 1997, $297 million in 1999 and most recently $377 million in 2001.

This time around, the school system is asking voters to approve a referendum of more than $290 million, which includes planning money for a new elementary school projected to open in fiscal year 2007, modular and brick-and-mortar additions at a combined 19 schools, the replacement of Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria and the renovation of South Lakes High School in Reston and Woodson High School in Fairfax.

The only referendum to fail was in the 1970s, when citizens objected to putting air conditioning in the schools. The line item was removed and the referendum passed on a second attempt.

THE BONDS are actually authorized by the Board of Supervisors, who place a limit on the amount of bond money the school system can spend each year. Currently, the cap is $130 million per year.

"We could never spend all this money over a two year period," said Gary Chevalier, director of the Office of Facilities Planning Services for the school system. "But we try to have a commitment in place."

Chevalier said the county's spending limit means projects have to be tackled in order of the priority set by the CIP, which is based on facilities analysis done by independent consultants. There is a concern with asking the voters to approve money faster than the school system can spend it.

"We don't want to get too big of a bow wave built up, Chevalier said.

He said the school system is still using moneys authorized in the 2001 bond and possibly some from the 1999 referendum.

IT IS THE JOB Bud Morrissette, chairman of the citizens bond committee, to teach people about what bonds, how they work, and how the bond affects the communities individually.

"I categorize it as a classrooms bond. When I go and talk to people, I tell them it will add 228 more classrooms for Fairfax County students and it opens their eyes and ears," he said.

Morrissette, who is also vice present of Interstate Van Lines, headquartered in Springfield, and a Fairfax County Public Schools graduate, said seniors and new county residents are the bulk of the targeted audience.

"You're preaching to the choir when you go to the PTAs," Morrissette said. "Seventy percent of those who are voting age in Fairfax County do not have school-age children. It's reaching them."

Morrissette said he typically explains the correlation of good schools to higher real estate values and low crime.

AS FAR AS fairly new schools, such as Westfield, already needing more space, Chevalier said it was part of the design.

"Westfield was originally designed to have an addition on it," he said. "At the time, we thought it could be the last high school built out west, so we designed it to be expanded as needed."

"For us, it would eliminate most of the trailers. º We’d get our black top back for our children to play," said Susan Benezra, principal at McNair Elementary in Herndon. "For some children, it’s the only place to play."

The school currently has 13 trailers to accommodate its 1,013 students. In addition, the school has large English for speakers of other languages and special education populations, both of which require additional services. However, Benezra said, "they’re our children. They are from the neighborhood. We would have them anyway."

Benezra said the school has had to stop allowing pupil placements because there is no room for additional children.