Anyone who has visited Bailey’s Elementary on a recent weekday morning understands why there’s such urgency to address the school’s crowding situation.
Designed to accommodate 1,050 students, Bailey’s enrollment currently sits at 1,331 with that number projected to rise to 1,593 within four years. As a result, Bailey’s leads all Fairfax schools with 19 on-campus trailers and half the school’s library has been commandeered for additional classrooms.
Crowding certainly isn’t an issue that’s unique to Bailey’s Elementary. Fairfax County’s school system has grown by nearly 20,000 students since the fall of 2006, and enrollment growth is projected to continue on that trajectory for several more years. The new students expected in the next five years could fill five new elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.
In Bailey’s case, none of the age-old crowding remedies can solve the problem. Adjusting the school’s boundaries isn’t an option because all three neighboring elementary schools — Glen Forest, Belvedere and Sleepy Hollow — are already over capacity.
Addressing the issue through the school system’s Capital Improvement Program isn’t likely, either. At least eight acres are needed to build a new elementary school and no such plot exists in or near Bailey’s Crossroads. Even if it did, funds are virtually non-existent. The school system cannot spend more than $155 million a year on renovation or construction projects and, at last check, there were nearly $1 billion worth of proposed improvement projects on the CIP.
To address the issue, it became clear that the School Board wouldn’t just have to think outside the proverbial box. They’d have to kick the box into another time zone.
And that appears to be what they’ve done.
On Dec. 5, the School Board last week approved a resolution to acquire “by condemnation or by other means” a vacant, five-story office building on Va. 7 to relieve crowding at Bailey’s. If they’re unable to reach an agreement with the building’s owners, they now have the authority to acquire it through eminent domain.
If everything eventually lines up, roughly 700 of Bailey’s 1,300-plus students will begin attending classes in the new building next September.
Not surprisingly, many are questioning the unprecedented move of placing a school in a five-story commercial space. How much traffic will be brought to the area? Will there be enough parking? Is there room for an outdoor playground and indoor facilities to meet physical education requirements? Can the current stable of administrators at Bailey’s oversee both campuses or will new staff need to be hired?
Although still in the early stages, the answers to each of those questions are encouraging and there’s reason to believe many aspects of the students’ educational experience will improve significantly. After all, it’s difficult for most 9- or 10-year-olds to learn math, history or anything else while sitting in crowded trailers and jockeying for a single teacher’s time with 31 other classmates.
Is acquiring nearby office buildings the solution for every crowded school in the county? Definitely not, but it appears to be the logical solution in this particular case. We understand some of the concerns being expressed by parents, neighbors and even some school personnel. That’s healthy. But we also applaud the Fairfax County School Board for recognizing that out-of-the-box solutions are necessary in tough budgetary times.
They got this one right.