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Can a Boundary Study Fix South County?

School board to vote on a boundary study to address overcrowding problems at South County Secondary.

Three numbers were written on the white board behind Dean Tistadt and Gary Chevalier, looking out at members of the Fairfax County Public School Board and the handful of residents attending the board’s work session Monday, Jan. 23.

The first number, 149,356, was the projected enrollment for the county’s schools for the 2005-06 school year; the second number, 148,789, was the total enrollment as of early September. The third number, .38 percent, was the difference between the two numbers.

“This has been a contentious several weeks,” said Tistadt, assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation with the school system. “I have been watching with some concern a number of individuals who have displayed concern with the accuracy of our enrollment projections. For people who want to say that we don’t have a clue, this shows that’s not true.”

THE ACCURACY of those numbers was of little consolation to the handful of parents whose children attend the South County Secondary School, which opened last September and will be up to 500 students over capacity at the start of the 2006-07 school year.

With a middle school almost a decade away from becoming a reality based on the Capital Improvement Plan, the School Board met on Monday to suggest authorizing a boundary study as a way to curb overcrowding.

The ability of the facilities staff to project the enrollment of schools in Fairfax County has come under fire in the past few months, as the newly built South County Secondary School faces overcrowding next fall.

Some in the community have blamed the facilities staff for under-estimating the interest and enrollment at the Lorton-area school for the lack of space for students, so Tistadt and Chevalier, at the request of the School Board, attempted to walk the board members through the process of how enrollment numbers are predicted.

“We look at what happens as students move from elementary school to high school,” Chevalier said, because it is during transitional years that classes are most likely to reduce in size for any number of reasons. Additionally, migration patters into and out of the county system are taken into consideration, as are new housing developments, planned construction and how quickly homes are being occupied, Chevalier said.

Some years, the enrollment projections have been higher than actual enrollment, he said, but some glaring exceptions exist, such as in the case of South County, which opened at near capacity levels in September 2005.

“I wouldn’t want your job,” said Lee District School Board member Brad Center. “No matter how you slice the numbers, you can’t make everyone happy. But we’re still unsure about the process. We still need a level of understanding. We’ve got to have a total overview of the process.”

Mount Vernon District Board member Dan Storck said he’s received a series of questions about the projection process from residents in his area.

“In the end, we need to make the calculation process transparent,” he said. “We need to be able to engage folks so they get the information they need and feel somewhat satisfied with our process. People want to know how the projection process works.”

WHEN THE ENROLLMENT projections for the 2006-07 school year first came out late last year, parents began to blame board members for their lack of foresight into the popularity of the school and for failing to take into consideration the amount of private school students who decided to return to their base school, said Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), chair of the facilities and operations committee.

“On the one hand, we were criticized for how we handled the South County issue when we rely on staff analysis,” he said. “We’ve also been criticized for not listening to the residents' analysis. Now we’re being criticized for taking their information into consideration.”

Chevalier said that the facilities staff made a mistake by not taking private school students into the equation for the South County enrollment numbers.

Between enrollment shifts and planned expansion projects, “in five years we will have the equivalent of an entire middle school worth of empty seats in the eastern part of the county," Chevalier said. "We have more than enough seats in the South County area to address overcrowding without building a thing."

The fastest way to address overcrowding may be to re-examine the boundaries that were established before the school opened and see if moving some students out of the school, possibly back to Hayfield Secondary School where 90 percent of the South County students came from, would help alleviate the problem, said board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill).

“I think it would be more important to redistrict the whole county,” said at-large board member Janet Oleszek. “Otherwise, we’ll end up with a disjointed elephant.”

Originally, a boundary study was planned for the 2007-08 school year, with changes to be implemented starting in 2008, said Center. “It’s a tough choice … we know we need a study there, the middle school is too far down the line. But the question is, when is the best time to do that? If we do this right away, we’ll disrupt a community that is just getting started.”

The longer the board waits to approve the study, the more time passes before changes can be made to address the overcrowding, the more strain will be put on the school and on the school’s principal to accommodate the students, Tistadt said.

“Every year we wait, the enrollment will grow and the pressure on Dale [Rumberger, South County principal,] and his staff will increase,” Tistadt said.