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School Board Fails To Address Overcrowding

No clear solution in sight for overcrowding at Silverbrook, Lorton Station Elementary Schools.

There may not be an easy answer to the overcrowding of two elementary schools in Lorton, but the Fairfax County School Board has heard a lot of options.

"The only way to provide relief to the most students would be to do an administrative boundary change and move any new students into Halley Elementary School," said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of facilities and transportation, during a School Board work session on March 12. "It's the only thing we can think of that we can do and have changes in place for this school year."

Halley Elementary School is the only school in the Lorton area that is not overcrowded. Both Lorton Station and Silverbrook Elementary schools are enrolled in excess of 200 students over capacity, while Halley is under capacity by about 150 students.

In recent weeks, the School Board has discussed how to take advantage of the excess capacity at Halley while reducing the strain on Lorton Station and Silverbrook Elementary Schools. Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) told the board he led several meetings with parents from the affected schools last week, trying to determine the best alternative.

"The community does not like the staff recommendation" to siphon any new residents within the Lorton Station or Silverbrook areas into Halley, Storck said. "There are already families moving in that have the intention of going to one of those schools. The communities, much to my surprise, want a boundary study."

HOWEVER, THE PLANNED Laurel Hill Elementary School, currently slated to open in September 2010, may open in 2009, if the Board of Supervisors allocates money that would expedite its construction. If that happened, it would subject those communities to two boundary studies within three years.

"We looked at other options of what the community would be willing to consider, such as splitting the Gifted and Talented Center [currently at Lorton Station], but we need to help Silverbrook too," Storck said.

Another option might be to allow students who live within Silverbrook to attend Halley if the GT center was moved. Those students might be able to receive transportation to Halley, since any Silverbrook students in the GT center would be picked up and taken to their school already, Storck said.

He asked the board if it would be possible to conduct an expedited boundary study for those three schools, with changes in place before the start of the 2006-2007 school year.

"If I had my choice, I'd go for that option," said Board Member Tessie Wilson (Braddock).

However, she asked Storck and Gary Chevalier, the chairman of the Office of Facilities Planning, if the overcrowding at Lorton Station and Silverbrook was a rarity in the county system.

"I have some extreme overcrowding in my area as well," she said. "If we allow students to have transportation to whatever school they want to go to, it has to be equitable county-wide."

Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) said an administrative change is "always the way to go" when dealing with quick boundary alterations.

"The new school is supposed to open soon," she said. "How many boundary studies do we want to put this community through? We don't want to do one now and then another one next year."

SEVERAL BOARD MEMBERS voiced concerns about the administrative boundary change, often referred to as "islands" in the community.

"We already know the transportation system is taxed," said Board Member Stephen Hunt (At large). "I know nothing is easy, but the most simplistic thing to do would be to move the GT center. That would provide the immediate removal of 180 students from Lorton Station without modifications or a boundary study," he said.

However, if moving the GT center, either in part or in full, is not an option, Hunt said he's prefer the board "not do anything at all for September."

Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) agreed. "The island idea is a short-term solution that is very short-sighted."

None of the options being discussed addressed the educational programs at any of the schools, noted Board Member Kathy Smith (Sully). "We have not talked about the leadership at the school or the programs there for the children. There's a lot more that goes into providing an education for a child," she said.

Gibson asked if it might be possible to conduct a smaller-scale study and in turn, take some communities "off the table" when the Laurel Hill school opens, to prevent a child being moved several times within a few years.

"There probably is a way we could do that," said Chevalier. "The Crosspointe community is split between two schools, Halley and Silverbrook. It's a much different situation there than some of the areas that go to Lorton Station."

SHIFTS IN THE POPULATION of a school district often require that area to be redistricted, said Board member Janet Oleszek (At large), who has previously suggested the entire county be redistricted. "We haven't done that across the county in a long time and that's why we're faced with this dilemma. If we're really not flexible in solving these problems, we're not doing our jobs."

Authorizing a boundary study could complicate the hiring process for the 2006-2007 school year.

Staffing recommendations for the upcoming school year must be made within the next month or two, said Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale.

Still, Gibson argued that boundary changes or adjustments should have been made prior to the board's last meeting in February.

"If we're going to approve this, we need to change our policy," he said. "Our regulations have a timetable in it. Here we are, talking about reopening boundaries. We can't make policy by anecdote."

After further discussion, chairman Phil Niedzielski-Eichner said he couldn't determine a consensus among board members that would allow them to vote on the issue during the March 23 meeting.

"We can't go forward," he said. "We'll have to come back to this."

However, after a survey of board members, it appeared that five of the 12 members would be in favor of either splitting the GT center and moving part of it to Halley. Five members also indicated they would consider an expedited boundary study, any changes from which could be implemented for the upcoming school year.

The board was scheduled to discuss the possibility of a boundary study for the South County Secondary School, with possible implications at Hayfield and Lake Braddock Secondary Schools, but the topic was postponed due to time constraints and a closed session meeting.