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No Need for a Middle School?

South County Middle School project could be scrapped if boundary changes fill excess seats at Lake Braddock, Hayfield.

For parents of students in the South County Secondary School pyramid, the next few years could be a bigger roller coaster than expected.

Not only is the school expected to be 500 students over capacity at the start of its second school year, but if a boundary change finds existing capacity in other schools, it could be used to eliminate overcrowding altogether. In fact, a proposed middle school may never need to be built.

"If the numbers play out the way we think they're going to play out, we may never build a middle school," said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Currently, the middle school is included in the Capital Improvement Plan to begin construction in 2014. Many parents have been lobbying and working to get the project funded ahead of time with the hope that opening a middle school sooner could alleviate the strain of more than 3,000 students in a school built to house 2,500. However, a proposed boundary study may find the unused seats at Lake Braddock Secondary School — currently in the last phase of an expansion project —and Hayfield Secondary School. This could eliminate the need for a South County Middle School altogether.

"The middle school is clearly an option we'll need to look at," said Ilryong Moon (At-large), School Board chairman. "At this point in time, we need to stay focused and bring all our options to the table."

SOME MEMBERS of the School Board would prefer to wait until an outside consultant is hired to examine the methods used by the facilities staff to project enrollment numbers. Others believe if the board waits too long to act, it could end up costing more tax payer dollars in the long run to modify the school to accommodate the extra students.

"There are significant building improvements that will need to be made to accommodate the growth at the school," Tistadt said. "With the use of some creative strategies that can be implemented right away, we could eliminate some construction if we do the study sooner rather than later."

A minimum of $1.5 million would need to be spent on modifications to the school for the 2006-07 school year if the study is delayed, said board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon). That would allow for eight "quad" buildings, each containing four classrooms, that would be used for lab space for science and art classes.

"I have to be able to deliver the curriculum to both the middle and the high school students that is outlined by Fairfax County," said South County principal Dale Rumberger. "Sooner or later, I'm going to need science labs, art labs and business labs."

Storck said he would rather wait and see the board hire an outside consulting firm to examine the methodology used by the school system to determine enrollment projections before approving a boundary study.

"We need to make sure the information we have is the best available," he said. "If someone can assure me that we'll have information in hand in time for a study this fall, I'll be fine with that. But I need to be assured that we won't create another problem we'll have to deal with again two or three years from now."

The area surrounding South County Secondary "is growing and will continue to grow," said board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill). "My concern with hiring a consultant is that he can turn around and say the numbers we had are the best we could do. That would take away any confidence a board member has in doing any boundary study."

However, Gibson said another factor needs to be taken into consideration during this study.

"The discussion we need to have is, do you own your high school?" he said. "I hear so many times that I moved into this community to go to 'x' high school. If that's the case, the School Board should have a policy about not opening boundaries for changes and increasing the CIP [Capital Improvement Plan] to add capacity to the schools we have."

As "stewards of the taxpayers' resources," Gibson wanted to make sure the School Board takes its responsibility wisely.

A decision on the boundary study will need to be made soon, Tistadt said, in order for money to be allocated to make changes at South County for the upcoming year if needed.

"Even if we hold off a year, the school is going to be over capacity this fall," said board member Stephen Hunt (At-large). We need to do something and we might as well get started now."

"The community wants to have more confidence in what we're doing," Storck said. "It's only fair. An enrollment projection study is essential. I'd be hard pressed to make a decision about this study without that information because we've been talking about this for a long time."