0
Votes

Parents Speak Out at Westfield

Decry new residential communities' impact on school's enrollment.

Even if no new residential developments are approved, Westfield High — built for 2,500 students — will have 3,300 students next year. A 24-classroom addition won't be built and ready for use until September 2006.

BUT DEVELOPERS are clamoring to build two large residential communities within Westfield's boundaries. And parents whose children already attend that school — or will in the future — are dead set against them.

Worried about the effect these new students would have on this already-filled-to-overflowing school's enrollment, Westfield High's PTSA brought parents face-to-face, Monday night, with school-system officials and land-use experts.

"We feel like this school's in crisis," said parent John Dahms. "What can we do to put pressure on the School Board to cap enrollment at 3,100?" However, no one had an answer for him.

One development, Middleton Farms, is a mixed-use project with a potential for more than 850 multifamily units. It's on the other side of Frying Pan Road, across from the Pomeroy and behind Copper Crossing, at Route 28.

The other development is a town-center concept including up to 960 homes. It's at Wall Road, bordering Centreville Road, Route 28 and McLearen Road and is on land currently owned by EDS.

Both these projects were approved by the Area Plans Review (APR) Task Force and go to the Planning Commission on April 20 and then to the Board of Supervisors. And students living in these areas are currently slated to attend Westfield.

AT MONDAY'S meeting, Sully District Planning Commissioner Ron Koch and At-Large Planning Commissioner Jim Hart explained land-use and planning. Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan designates areas according to types of use — residential, commercial and industrial — and intensity (building units per acre).

But APR nominations can amend this plan. Hart said the April 20 meeting might carry over to April 27 and residents may sign up to address the Planning Commission at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/pcom/speaker.htm or by calling 703-324-2865.

"Or you can send letters or e-mails to the Planning Commission, expressing your concerns," said Hart. "Citizen input at every stage is important and can affect the outcome." The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the Supervisors, and residents may address them, too.

However, since Virginia is one of five Dillon Rule states in the U.S., local governments can't do anything for which the state hasn't given them power. "So therefore, local governments may not deny a rezoning because of limited school or road capacity," said Hart. And, he added, often, "what's left of the developable land are the scraps."

Koch said that, in the 1970s, the county decided to attract more jobs to bolster its tax base. The problem, he explained, is that, "We have conflicting needs. Fairfax County's Economic Development Authority attracted new companies here from all over the world and created 25,000 new jobs. But with them came people [needing homes]. And it's a great place to live. We're a victim of our own success."

AS FOR the two APR proposals, Koch said, "I really don't see Middleton Farms offering much to the county except for more people. But I won't prejudge it; I'll keep an open mind. But the EDS property has ballfields there for CYA and SYA and, at this particular time, offices aren't selling — but residential is hot. And EDS said, 'If you let us put in residential there, we'll give the ballfields to the county.'"

Regarding the potential overcrowding, he told the 150 some parents gathered in Westfield's lecture hall: "Our school system is the best in the country, and it'll come up with something."

Then Gary Chevalier, director of Facilities Planning Services, discussed enrollment. "We're not done growing here [at Westfield]," he said. "We're at 3,100 this year, will be at 3,300 next year and will then probably have another year at this level."

He said the elementary schools that feed into Westfield have been losing enrollment. So as these students begin to progress through high school, said Chevalier, "We'll see high-school enrollment begin to drop off, ever so slightly."

But Westfield mom Lori Knickerbocker wasn't buying it. "I've painfully watched this school grow and, when my kids are outta here, I'm outta here," she said. "And who's gonna buy my house? Someone with five children."

Still, said Chevalier, "By 2009, we're projected to have [enough] capacity here — although in very large schools." But that'll be possible, he said, because the high schools will have 2,800 to 3,100 students in them. Then, said Chevalier, "The School Board will have to decide how big we want our school capacities to be."

He said the school system has about a $130 million spending cap for capital improvements and, with 75 percent of the county's schools 30 or more years old, "We need to renovate and maintain them. And we need to add seats for the new enrollment."

ONE OF the easiest ways to do that, said Chevalier, is to add onto existing facilities "because you don't, for example, need to add a new football stadium."

Then Dean Tisdadt, assistant superintendent, Facilities and Transportation, assured the crowd that, "You have a very outspoken School Board member in [Sully District representative] Kathy Smith." She tells us what's going on out here and the needs."

He said Westfield has lots of acreage and, therefore, "has more flexibility [for expansion] than, for example, Chantilly [High]." However, he noted that there's increasing sentiment that "small schools are better for students." So things the school system is considering are:

* Building a new high school. "But finding 50-60 acres to locate a school in this area would be very difficult," said Tisdadt.

* Changing a middle school into a high school. "We're exploring this option," he said.

* Changing school boundaries after capacity is added to high schools such as South Lakes. But its renovation won't be completed until 2008, and Tisdadt doesn't want to change its boundaries until then.

* If the Supervisors approve the new communities, excluding their students from Westfield's boundaries.

Chevalier said "facilities tend to follow the enrollment" so the school system knew Westfield would eventually be overcrowded. But, he said, "The growth came on faster than we anticipated, some commercial [use] was changed into residential and [Westfield's] boundaries are really big."

They were drawn that way, he said, in part, to give long-overcrowded Centreville High some relief. But now, said Chevalier, "We're seeing the result of that."

Westfield parent John Caskey said former Westfield Principal Dale Rumberger and current Principal Mike Campbell have done a great job managing the growth and leading the school to success in many areas. "But how does the quality of education [get affected] once the capacity is 3,100?" he asked. "The hallways, cafeteria and library are only so big."

Tisdadt said the new addition will contain a new cafeteria and more bathrooms. And while acknowledging what an outstanding school Westfield is, Campbell admitted that, with such a large enrollment, students' opportunities to participate in certain activities "are somewhat limited."

JOHN MCCRONE, who has children at Westfield and in two of its feeder schools, Floris Elementary and Rachel Carson Middle School, said it's "not fair for EDS to hold a gun to the county's head about the fields. Those youth [sports] programs have way too much power over what we do."

But, replied Chevalier, "Give the county credit for what they've done. The developers have been more than willing to step up and provide the schools with funds. The problem is that we don't have 50 acres for a new high school out here, and neither do the developers. So what else could we do?"

Shouted several people from the audience: "Not approve these developments." Koch said he wouldn't approve either of them "unless there's language in the [deal] stating that they wouldn't have any adverse impacts upon the schools' enrollment." Added Hart: "Nothing's a done deal. You never know what the Board of Supervisors is going to do, or what the wording may be."

Lu Ann McNabb, Westfield PTSA's legislative chairman, said it comes down to eight athletic fields at EDS vs. more than 900 homes feeding into Westfield. "My kids have been in crowded schools their whole lives," she said. "Westfield is the largest school in the state. When the new addition is built, enrollment should be capped at 3,100."

"It is grossly unfair for us to take on any other students when all these other schools are under us [in enrollment]," she continued. "The enrollment projections haven't been right in the past 17 years, and [unless we cap it here], I don't believe it'll stop at 3,300. I think it'll be 3,400, 3,500, 3,600."

Deer Park parent Laura Granruth said it's "a Richmond problem, and neither [Sen. Ken] Cuccinelli or [Rep. Tim] Hugo have kids in the school system." This summer, said Tisdadt, school officials are going to discuss what school enrollments should be: "We're going to keep as many options open as we can, while we evaluate others."

"WE'RE REALLY trying to think outside the box and do what we can to resolve this painful situation," said School Board representative Kathy Smith. "We need a long-term solution, and we're constrained by the dollars we have. But Mike Campbell is doing a wonderful job, and students are succeeding here. We're working as hard as we can to balance our resources and find an answer."

Westfield and Stone Middle PTA President Dana Cimino told parents to use their power and voice their opinions about the two proposed developments: "This is what grassroots is all about," she said. "Tell people, speak now, write e-mails, make those phone calls."

E-mails may be sent to Planning Commissioners Koch and Hart at plancom@fairfaxcounty.gov. Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) is at sully@fairfaxcounty.gov., and Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly is at chairman@fairfaxcounty.gov.