A swelling student population plays a starring role in school construction plans for the next five years, as Fairfax County’s school system tries to keep pace with projected enrollment growth. But with more than 900 trailers in use across the county this year, FCPS is already playing catch-up on the issue of overcrowding.
Finding space for students is a countywide issue, as evidenced by the voices from across the community heard at the School Board’s public hearing on the 2015-19 Capital Improvement Program on Wednesday night.
The CIP provides a blueprint for building projects for the next five years. This year’s plan proposes $866 million in construction and renovations. In a large and still-expanding school system, though, school officials acknowledged that they cannot cover all the facilities needs.
In the past five years, the county has gained enough new elementary students to fill 10 new elementary schools, according to the CIP. Yet in that time, the school system has built just three. School officials note that the system will continue to require temporary classrooms, trailers and boundary adjustments to address school crowding issues.
The CIP earmarks funds for five new elementary schools and one new high school to help cover predicted population growth. It also includes plans for additions at South Lakes High School in Reston and Westbriar and Marshall Road elementary schools in Vienna.
Enrollment has increased by almost 20,000 students since 2006 to more than 184,000 this year. With an expected influx of 3,000 students per year, the total is expected to reach 199,000 by 2018.
That surge in students will exacerbate existing capacity issues at schools across the county. Already, 15 schools operate at least 15 percent over capacity. By the 2018-19 school year, that number is projected to grow to 39 schools.
One of the new planned elementary schools will help provide relief to Providence Elementary in Fairfax, which is currently 9 percent over capacity. Of the five elementary schools it shares a boundary with, four are also over capacity.
“Enrollment projections will continue to grow, and Providence will continue to be over capacity,” said Janice Miller, chairman of the City of Fairfax School Board. The City of Fairfax oversees the facilities of Providence and other school buildings within city limits, though the county administers the schools.
According to Miller, though, the new schools slated to open by 2020 can not come soon enough.
“That is a long way off,” Miller said, advocating for the school’s construction schedule to be fast-tracked.
However, even the current pace of construction for the new schools and capacity increases will delay many future renovation projects, according to Superintendent Karen Garza.
Parents of the the county’s five “legacy” high schools expressed concern for the delays at the public hearing. This group of high schools, Falls Church, Herndon, Langley, Oakton and West Springfield, were all built around the same time in the 1960s and have never had a full renovation.
Renovations for Langley are on schedule to be completed in the next five years, according to the CIP. By 2019, renovations at West Springfield, Herndon and Oakton will likely still be in planning. Falls Church is not included on the construction docket at all.
“The message for FCHS seems to be just make due and wait,” said Holly Chong-Williams, a parent of two Falls Church graduates and a future Falls Church student. “It is time for the School Board to make renovating all the legacy high schools a priority.”
The School Board is expected to vote on the CIP at its next regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 23.
Of the $866 million in the CIP, funds approved in the 2013 school bond referendum and previous year’s bonds will cover $416 million. That leaves $450 million unfunded, which the School Board hopes to make up with future bond votes.