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What Is 4/10 of a Student?

School system explains enrollment calculations, with focus on Fairlee.

Denise Schwandt's children go to Marshall Road Elementary. The school is currently over its capacity for students, and it's going to get bigger. "I do really mourn the loss of a little, neighborhood elementary school," Schwandt said. "Something's going to go away."

Schwandt was one of about two dozen parents, primarily from Marshall Road and Mosby Woods elementaries, who attend a meeting on Feb. 23 to discuss school enrollment projections.

The meeting at Mosby Woods Elementary, sponsored by School Board chair Phil Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) and attended by several other members of the School Board, was planned to explain to those parents how enrollment projections, particularly for new developments, are calculated. "This is a discussion on community impact in general," Niedzielski-Eichner said. "What's most salient is how we generate impacts."

WHEN A new housing development is proposed, the school system can estimate the number of students based on past numbers. The school is able to calculate how many students come from a given type of housing unit, and project that on the new development, said Gary Chevalier, director of facilities management for FCPS.

Current projections estimate that a single-family, detached house generates 0.473 students per house, so a development of 100 detached houses would produce about 47 students. The figures as an average do not mean that 47 houses have students, that number would likely be lower, since many families with children have more than one child.

The ratios also predict rates for townhouses at 0.372 per house, garden apartments 0.227 per unit, and high-rise apartments 0.102 per unit, according to information Chevalier provided. Those ratios can be broken down further into elementary-, middle- and high-school student yields "They are a countywide average," he said.

These figures are based on current public school enrollment and do not include students who attend private school or who are home-schooled.

The ratios are typically recalculated every two years, but the last time they were calculated was in 2002, Chevalier said. They are likely to be recalculated during the next school year but are not likely to be adjusted by much. "It really doesn't change much over time," he said.

When the school system finds out how may of which type of housing units will be included in a new development, it multiplies that number by the student yield for that type of housing unit to generate how many students might come from a new development.

Developers are then asked to pay approximately $7,500 per student generated to help offset the impact of their development.

Chevalier also said that when the houses are new, single-family, detached, they tend to have a "bubble" with a higher yield ratio for a time.

In those cases, developers are usually asked to pay based upon the more stable long-term number, Chevalier said. However, when making annual projections about the number of students in a school, and the impacts it would have on staffing levels and programs, the "bubble" is taken into account.

MOST OF the parents at the Feb. 23 meeting were mainly concerned about the Fairlee/Metrowest development, just south of the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station and west of Nutley Street. The project will include 2,248 housing units, some of which will be townhouses and the rest condominiums; about 94,000 square feet of retail space; and about 325,000 square feet of office space. Of the housing units, 376 will be age-restricted to allow for senior housing. Age-restricted units do not generate students.

Chevalier's office has projected that the development will generate 198 students for Mosby Woods Elementary, 40 for Jackson Middle School and 93 for Oakton High School. Although the final dollar amount has not been officially agreed upon, Fairlee's developer, Pulte Homes, will likely give about $2 million — in cash or in-kind contributions — to the school system. It will also make contributions to improve some roads and intersections in the vicinity of the development, among other things.

Mosby Woods is already over capacity, and the school is in the process of getting a 10-room, modular addition. Even with the additional classroom space, Fairlee would put Mosby Woods over capacity. Therefore, the students from that development will likely be moved. "We anticipate moving the Fairlee development out of this attendance area," Chevalier said.

The likely destination for those students is Marshall Road, Chevalier said. "We're full at Mosby Woods. We're going to have to add some space. We'll probably put it at Marshall Road," he said. A modular addition is planned for Marshall Road, but it has not been funded.

If additional space is still needed, Chevalier said the next most likely place for the new students is Fairhill Elementary.

Some parents questioned if and when the school system would decide that it should build a new school, instead of adding to existing schools. "What about more schools to absorb some of the kids from the area?" said Tara Voigt, president of the Marshall Road PTA.

The solutions are not simple ones, Chevalier explained. Little land is available in the immediate area on which a new school could be built.

CHEVALIER CONCEDED that additions are sometimes difficult to place as a result of topography on some school sites. Marshall Road is an example of a school with unusual topography, and Chevalier expects to find out soon where might be the best site for the planned addition.

Additions and classroom trailers usually eat up playground, parking or blacktop space, which Marshall Road parents say they can't afford to lose. The kiss and ride, said Schwandt is already backed up. "The traffic pattern on a rainy day … Oh my God," she said.

"There are some schools where we've added and added and added, and we are touching the cap," Chevalier said.

While installing an additional floor to a school is not out of the question, it is not typically an option either, Chevalier explained. To do so, a school's roof would need to be rebuilt in order to withstand the weight, and it would not be feasible to have students in the school while that type of renovation is going on.

Boundary shifts are another difficult option. If a school is overcrowded and an abutting school is not, students can be shifted from one school to another.

SEVERAL PARENTS asked for a shift, suggesting that they should be moved out of Mosby Woods, instead of the people who will live in Fairlee. "We're the taxpayers now," said Christy Cushing, a Mosby Woods parent.

Matthew Pickford pointed to nearby Oakton and Flint Hill elementaries, suggesting that they be asked to absorb some of the students. "What about spreading it out. Spread the wealth out," said Pickford, a Mosby Woods parent.

Boundary studies are typically very controversial. Parents become invested in their child's school and have strong feelings about whether or not they want to be moved from it. In addition, when a school is built, parents clamor to have their child in the new facility.

The school system engages in adjusting boundaries almost every year, Chevalier said. This year, it established boundaries for the new South County High School, taking students from several other schools.

In the fall, FCPS is expected to begin a boundary study for West Fairfax Elementary, a new school being built off Route 29 near the Fairfax County Government Center and expected to open in the fall of 2006.