With 27.5 Million sq ft of infrastructure – including 1.5 Million sq ft of trailers – we are behind in planning, renovating and building the right spaces in the right places.
Picturing the sheer size of our school facilities and administrative buildings is difficult – but together, they are equivalent to nearly 5 Pentagons!
There are 198 schools and centers in Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation’s 10th largest school division. The trend has been to solve permanent problems with temporary solutions … adding and moving trailers throughout the county to meet the ever growing student population.
Much of the School Board discussion every year is centered on the now $3.0 billion annual operating budget, with little time spent on the accuracy of student projections for the out years by pyramid and school. As residential home in-building continues, the pressures of student growth in one school boundary versus another creates urgent need for seats that go unplanned for year after year in the capital planning and annual budget, which is now set at $180 million.
With the effort to draw more technology companies to Fairfax County and northern Virginia, and the pending arrival of Amazon’s “HQ2”, the long-term needs for the right spaces in the right places is even more urgent.
THESE ARE YOUR SCHOOLS
It’s pretty straightforward: Fairfax County residents are the owners of their public schools. The funding of our schools comes overwhelmingly from personal property taxes and taxpayer dollars in the form of state taxes which are sent to, then returned by, the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.
Our residents should be able to send their children to their neighborhood school, with seats in a brick and mortar building.
The renovation queue is often well over the 20-to-25 year cycle that is established in policy. Meanwhile, many schools grow to super-sized student populations with overcrowded classrooms, often spilling over into trailers surrounding the main school building.
Some schools linger on the renovation queue so long that students either face cramped classes or reduced options as schools lose the opportunity to offer seats for certain classes.
Families buy their homes informed by where they want to send their children to school. This isn’t news – it’s natural to have an affinity for a community.
Many times, residents in Fairfax County move into the same school boundary they attended as children. Others select school boundaries for other characteristics such as walkability, program offerings, or proximity to their work location to minimize commuting time apart from their children in county amidst the nation’s worst traffic.
The residents of Fairfax County place an extremely high value on education, which was clearly reflected in the responses to a recent Countywide Strategic Planning survey conducted by the Board of Supervisors.
The great news is that people in our county value their homes and our schools. Providing neighborhood schools also promotes reduced time on buses, safe routes to schools for walkers and bike riders, and gets children home to spend time with their families an in extracurricular activities.
Planning for, and moving students into, brick and mortar buildings is also a demonstrable step forward to establishing safe and secure schools.
In addition, every day around the county, students lose academic time with interruptions to leave a trailer in buddy-pairs to make trips to the nurse, restroom and otherwise – all requiring a traipse outside, into the main school building and back again. This is a real permanent academic impact which only has temporary solutions in the county’s use of over 750 trailers.
It is important for the next School Board to respect the values of our residents and dedicate the time to establish more rigorous oversight in the capital infrastructure planning, capital budget development and student projection methodology to ensure for families that their children can attend their neighborhood brick and mortar school.
Total student population growth annually in the division doesn’t impact a community in the way that their own student population winds up at the beginning of each school year. A swing of just 20 or 30 students can mean the difference in losing a teacher or being short-staffed and facing overcrowding for the academic year.
Reuse is Wise Use
School property that sits un-used and underutilized directly impacts students, families and taxpayers. The School Board must make maximum use of – and restore into use – all facilities to act as wise stewards of taxpayer-funded property.
Long-term Strategic Planning
Schools can’t be built overnight – especially in a county where land is at a premium. The School Board must continually look at strategic planning to meet growth where it happens.
The renovation queue backlog runs between $800 million to $1 billion – digging out requires innovation in more ex-urban school construction, public-private partnerships and collaboration with the Board of Supervisors on capital funding.