Fairfax County Public Schools enrollment trends could mean more funding spent on increasing capacity than renovating aging schools. The school system estimates this fall that it has about 184,477 seats within its 196 schools and centers for about 181,510 enrolled students.
The school system’s Chief Operating Officer, Dean Tistadt, said the school system will need to think out of the box to create capacity solutions, and predicted boundary changes will become more common.
Q: What is the status of FCPS’s ability to accommodate the growing number of students?
Dean Tistadt: It’s a system that has been dealing pretty well overall with the growth in the last few years. But I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult for us to continue to do so as our options for solutions are becoming more and more limited.
For example, we opened two new schools this last year a middle school and an elementary school and then moved another elementary school to a new location. We don’t own much land on which to build new schools. We have only a couple more schools in the funding pipeline over the next five years. So those kind of major solutions such as a new school are not going to be a part of our solution matrix over the next capital improvement program.
Q: What do you see as the key to addressing FCPS’s capacity needs?
DT: We’re going to have to get increasingly creative and try to find different solutions. One of them clearly will be boundaries. One thing we do have happening is we have some available seats not necessarily where the growth is occurring. So, one potential solution is to move the boundary and move the students to where the empty seats are. Sometimes that can work. Sometimes the distances are so far it is going to be difficult.
Look at the Bailey’s Crossroads/Glen Forest situation. We’ve got two elementary schools side-by-side, both of which are projected to have between 1,400 and 1,600 students each in the next five years. We have no perfect solutions for those. One solution we are exploring is a new elementary school at the Glasgow Middle School site. That’s outside the attendance area of either of those schools. So we would have a really unusual configuration of boundaries to get those students all the way over to Glasgow; and we’d have a school serving Bailey’s students in the middle of the Parklawn [Elementary] attendance area. [It’s a] very unusual and awkward solution.
Q: Bailey’s Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the state. What is causing the crowding issues at this school?
DT: Part of it is the site. It can’t possibly take any more trailers and that kind of thing. And the other part of the problem is in my professional opinion we should never build an elementary school to deliberately house 1,600 students. Most parents would tell you an elementary school with 800 kids is too big. So if you double it to 1,600, you are really getting way out on the edge of anybody’s reasonableness for how big an elementary school should be. So, if you can’t build the school up to 1,600, or should not build it up to 1,600, and there’s no more space for the temporary kind of solutions like trailers and stuff, then what do you do? Do you do year-round school where you have one-third or one-quarter of the students out of the building at all points in time? So, then you can increase your capacity by that creative scheduling of students, but it puts tremendous strain on the administrators, on the faculty, on the building, on all the logistics and support around it; and how do we ever get around to take care of the building’s needs if it’s in constant use 12 months a year. But those are the kinds of things we may have to explore as part of our potential solutions if we can’t find something better.
Q: Where are the five hot spots for crowding?
DT: Bailey’s/Glen Forest is, to me, the most challenging of all of the ones we are facing because there are no good solutions available to us in my opinion at this time …
My second one is we are growing increasingly concerned about high school capacity in the west. If you look at our projections, we show South Lakes [High School] getting close to 3,000 kids. We show Oakton [High School] overcrowded. We show Herndon [High School] overcrowded. We show Chantilly [High School] about at capacity. We show Centreville [High School] overcrowded. Even if we put additions on a couple of those buildings, like Oakton and Herndon, when we renovate them, that’s not going to give us the capacity that we need to meet the needs out there. So, I believe we need another high school out there. We don’t own any land; so if we have to go out and buy land for a high school and then build a high school, that’s a huge amount of cash out of our capital improvement program. As I said, not very eloquently and shouldn’t have said it the other day [Sept. 10 School Board meeting on crowding], if we have to squeeze $100 million in cash flow for a high school out there, it’s going to push renovations back by years. So, schools that are already waiting patiently for renovations are going to be waiting even longer.
Q: Is that already happening?
DT: You’re going to see more of it with this next capital improvement program …
We also have a looming problem with west Fairfax elementary school capacity. Coates and McNair [elementary schools] and some of the other schools out there are getting very crowded. We need to find another elementary school site and build an elementary school out there. The benefit of that, compared to a high school, is it takes a lot less land and costs a lot less money to put an elementary school together than it does a high school.
[The fourth hot spot crowding area] is the Route 1 corridor. There, unlike some of these others, we actually have some options. We own a site, 10-acre site, down there where we could build a school. We could put Virginia Hills [Elementary], which used to be a school but became a center, back to use as a school, and renovate it completely. And then there is an old high school that’s now rented by a private school that can be returned to our use potentially as a school. That’s [the Islamic] Saudi Academy … That’s actually owned by the county, but the county has expressed some interest in having that come back to us for use as a school.
The fifth one is Fairfax High School and Lanier [Middle School] overcrowding [Note: the School Board last Monday directed school staff to begin a boundary study on solving crowding at these city of Fairfax schools].
Q: Does the school system have a capacity queue similar to its renovations queue, which is included in the Capital Improvements Program?
DT: We don’t have a formal capacity queue. We do have capacity projects in the CIP and you’ll see additions in there, you’ll see modular in there, you’ll see modular relocations in there. But we don’t other than in terms of showing where the cash flow is we don’t have a listing of the prioritization of the capacity enhancements.
Q: What are some of the out-of-the-box solutions FCPS is thinking about?
DT: At the moment, we are looking at the year-round schooling as something crazy. We are looking at every opportunity to put additions on existing buildings. We have, as you know, gone through a very bloody process of closing a building [Clifton Elementary School] that we didn’t think was worth the investment. That could continue in the future because while we have growing needs in some parts of the county, we’ve seen declining enrollments in other parts of the county. How we use those buildings where declining enrollments are occurring will be a hard decision for somebody in the future. Should we close it, or should we do some strange boundaries? Should we try to use it as leverage and try to generate money? Who knows how to best do that, but we will continue to explore those kinds of options.
Q: How would year-round school work?
DT: Basically, you could do a couple of things. You could take your student population and [divide] them into groups of three or four, call them cohorts if you will. If you have four cohorts, at any given time three of them are in the building and one is off. And then they each get off during a different quarter of the year. So, they’re doing the same number of [school] days each, but there’s no time when the building is actually closed. By doing that, you would, in effect, increase your school capacity by 33 percent.
Q: Would students and parents be given a choice which quarter off they would get?
DT: To me, that would be your starting point to give us a here’s what your quarter assignments are for cohort A, B, C and D, now sign up for the one you’d like to be off. We have a lot of folks living in that part of the county who like returning to their native country for extended periods of time in the middle of the winter, for example. So, maybe they’d want that quarter off and would volunteer to be off every November, December, January, or something along those lines. Looking for volunteers makes the most sense to me.
Q: In recent years, FCPS closed or repurposed Graham Road, Clifton and Dunn Loring elementary schools and Pimit Hills Adult High School. Will any of those become schools again?
DT: I don’t ever see Clifton being reopened because we just don’t have any growth in enrollment in that part of the county. I doubt Graham Road [which is 4 acres on a geographically challenged site] would ever be reopened because it’s such as lousy site that the board made a very deliberate decision not to renovate it in the first place. Pimmit, someday, will become a school again. As Tysons [Corner] growth occurs, Pimmit’s location screams to be used as a school again. I have no doubt that will happen. Dunn Loring will become a school again, in my opinion, because of its proximity to Tysons.
Q: What, if any, misconceptions are there about crowding in Fairfax County Public Schools?
DT: One misconception is that trailers, by definition, are bad. I think trailers serve a purpose when you have a fluctuating enrollment situation and you don’t want to make a permanent investment in space that might not last long. I don’t think trailers are bad if kids don’t spend all day, every day in a trailer. For example, if you go out to a trailer for music, I don’t think it’s a bad thing … Even if you’re in high school and you go out and take math 9 or algebra for one period out of seven in a trailer, I don’t know that that’s bad …
Q: Last year the School Board had a discussion on asking the Board of Supervisors to increase the amount of the bond referendum. FCPS receives $155 million a year in capital improvement funding from voter approved bonds issued by Fairfax County. Is that enough money?
DT: While they’ve been extremely generous within their bond program, giving us $155 million a year, it’s nowhere near what we need. Having said that, they don’t give any of the programs that they have what they need. So, libraries could say the same thing, parks could say the same thing, roads could say the same thing. So it’s not like they’re taking care of their own stuff at our expense. But having said that, we’re falling well short of what we need in the school system. By my calculations we need about $205 million a year. So, we’re getting about $50 million less a year than what we require.
Q: How much of that goes toward renovations and improvements versus capacity enhancements?
DT: It’s going to vary, but, historically, we’ve been spending 75 to 80 [percent] on renovations and the balance on capacity enhancements and infrastructure. I think that’s going to shift more and more to capacity enhancements, so less will be available for renovations … I can see renovations being delayed and communities becoming increasingly unhappy, having to wait longer than they originally thought.
Q: What should parents know about crowding or capacity in FCPS?
DT: I think parents need to be prepared for the potential that capacity challenges are going to have to be solved, at least in part, by boundary changes. So they’ve got to be aware that that’s possible, be in tune to whether that is or isn’t something that could happen in their communities, and then work with the system on helping determining appropriate boundary changes should we launch a study.