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Waiting for Lines To Be Drawn

Parents at South County Secondary debate options, need for a boundary study.

A community's long-awaited dream could soon become a nightmare.

With enrollment projections putting South County Secondary School at more than 500 students over capacity for the 2006-07 school year, its second year open, parents and the Fairfax County School Board are discussing the options at hand for rectifying the problem.

"The best solution is to build a middle school as soon as possible," said Christine Morin, a South County parent and chair of the South County Federation's education committee.

Many parents echo Morin's sentiments, but all agree that the only option available to fix the situation before 2014, when the middle school is scheduled for construction, is a boundary study.

"At first we thought we should wait and come up with an alternative plan, but now that I think about it, waiting a year will not help the community," Morin said. "We're supposed to be looking out for the kids, but I don't know what value it would add to wait a year."

The longer the school's boundary remains the way it is, the more attached people will become to the community growing around it, she said, and the more detrimental any changes in the school's boundary will be to that community.

"People are passionate about where they want their kids to go to school," Morin said. When a boundary study takes place, she said, communities will be vying about who goes where."

IN THE MEANTIME, 20 trailers and five modular units are expected to arrive at South County for the next school year, said Kim Kern, another South County parent.

She has concerns about a boundary study to address overcrowding, mostly because of problems with accurate enrollment projections from when the boundaries were formed last year.

"I have doubts in the facilities staff to get the projection numbers right," Kern said. If the enrollment projections, which are determined by Fairfax County Public Schools' Office of Facilities Planning, are inaccurate one way or another, "we'll have to shift our students back and forth again," she said.

In addition, population and enrollment estimates do not take into consideration the impact of families moving to Fort Belvoir and the surrounding area as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Committee changes made last year.

"We know these people are coming," Kern said. "I don't think they can make a decision without that information. If they do, they'll be making a flawed decision with flawed data. It would be better to wait another year."

As president of the Crosspointe neighborhood's homeowners association, Steve Adragna said he "gets an earful" from the 1,350 homes he represents when it comes to the school. "This community has a clear and consistent position ... many of us think there ought not to be a boundary study," he said. "I'm hard pressed to find the advantage of doing a study this fall unless it's going to fix the problem, but it makes sense to do it before people plan high school courses and extra curriculars."

The solution, Adragna said, would appear to be moving the boundaries of the South County Secondary again to take advantage of empty seats at Hayfield Secondary and other opening in the eastern part of the county that were created during the last boundary study.

"Most people wanted to go to South County, but some wanted to stay," he said. "Through the process, people were telling the School Board about the need to plan for the ... middle school because the high school numbers were going to go through the roof."

Parents need to realize "we can't have the ideal," Adragna said. Asking the School Board for "a big bag of money" isn't going to happen, but working with the board "to come up with creative situations to build the middle school sooner" is a possibility.

"It's one thing to tell people they need to go through a boundary study and a year later tell them we made a mistake and we'll fix it by having a boundary study," he said. "Residents ought not be punished for errors and poor planning by the public school system."

Some wonder whether it's worth waiting another year to see if the projection systems is fixed.

"Now is the best time to look at the situation," said Liz Bradsher, a Fairfax Station resident who was involved in the push to build South County Secondary.

Enrollment numbers will continue to fluctuate, she said, as they have since the school was planned.

The school was planned to hold between 2,200 and 2,300 students originally, and enrollment for the upcoming school year is expected to be about 3,000 students in grades seven through 12, with 500 more students coming in than are currently there.

"You can't do that," Bradsher said. "That's when programs start to be affected, core facilities like the cafeteria and gymnasium are affected. It won't be a good place to be, so why should we wait?"

Bradsher said she understands the desire to have a feeling of connectivity and community as a result of a school, but wonders where the lines are drawn.

"At Hayfield, it was difficult to create a community because of the distance kids were coming from," she said. "Now, I'm so close to South County, that's my community. That's as far as my sense of community is defined. My community is where I live."

THE SOONEST that the southern part of the county could see a middle school, which would alleviate some of the overcrowding on its own, is 2016, said Lisa Adler, president of the South County PTSA. And other than using a time machine that would "yank us back to one year ago and the School Board making a better decision" about the school's initial enrollment, she doesn't see many options available to fix the overcrowding.

"They either pull out the middle school or pull communities out," she said. "Neither are what the community wants, but I don't see another alternative other than building a middle school and that's just not on the horizon at this time."

Adler said she is concerned about the impact a boundary study would have on parents and children at the school.

"A boundary study will remove some of our students from their community school, break up friendships and trusted relationships with teachers and advisors," she said. "Parents will once again be drawing lines in the sand as communities fight to stay inside the boundary. It will be a nightmare."

School Board members may be dreading the study as much as parents, knowing that residents from all sides will be pleading and arguing their cases.

"There is nothing I can say to some of these families to make them believe we're going to get this 100 percent right," said Brad Center, the Lee District representative to the School Board. "We have to earn their trust and we know we have some work to do. We expect parents to be very wary of what's going on."

Center said he is willing to make sure the board hires an outside consultant to help with the enrollment projections to make sure the numbers are as accurate as possible, in order to regain the community's trust and to avoid having the situation happen again.

THE OBVIOUS overcrowding at South County may be more defined by a boundary study, but it will not likely make the middle school happen any sooner, Center said.

"I know parents and families are looking at alternative financing to get it built so the impact of the middle school is less significant," Center said.

School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said the area is one of tremendous need and growth, and there aren't enough resources to meet all those needs, creating a frustrating situation for him and the community.

Storck would rather wait a few years to tackle the boundary study, honoring the School Board's written policy of allowing three years to pass between studies in any given area.

"We need to look very hard at that policy to see if it is in everyone's best interest to do something different," Storck said. "If we're going to change the policy, we need to get the community involved."

The School Board needs to be clear about the options available to address the overcrowding, he said, and needs to make the enrollment projection process transparent to all families involved.

"That's what got us into this situation a year ago," Storck said. "I spent a great deal of time with the community ... to ensure the numbers we were using were the right ones, because I didn't want to do what we're doing now."

Storck said that at the center of all the concerns was doing what's best for the students at South County.

"We realize we need to do this right. We don't want to add another negative experience to these kids because being a teenager is hard enough," Storck said. "The last thing we want to do is be like a yo-yo."