Full House

Alex Mandanas, Maria McHugo, Jeremy Siegel, Jack Stenzel

Full House

Full House

Alex Mandanas, Maria McHugo, Jeremy Siegel, Jack Stenzel
Pictures: Anna Brykcznski, Maria McHugo
October 15, 2018
Severe overcrowding provokes countywide issues

As the morning bus approaches its last stop at 7:40 a.m., tinted windows obscure an interior packed beyond capacity. Half of the seats built to accommodate only two high school students hold three, in addition to backpacks, instruments and various sports gear. At the last stop, some are forced to sit in the aisle for the remainder of the ride.

With a total population of 2,252 students, the school exceeds its maximum capacity of 1,993 by over 250 students, producing a slew of structural problems for both students and faculty at McLean.

“It’s really difficult to get across the building on time with all of the traffic. I’m often late to my yellow hall classes since they’re so far from the rest,” senior Noor Al-Saloum said. “I purposefully take the longer route because I know it’ll be faster than having to squish through swarms of people.”

In the current academic year, the school hired 20 new teachers in order to account for the unprecedentedly large student population. While some have been required to inhabit one of 14 trailers, others have been assigned to floating classrooms. French teacher Rebecca Anderson rotates between three different classrooms every other day.

“My whole teaching life is on a cart, so I have to be very organized,” Anderson said. “It’s sort of like being an actress and making sure you’re setting the stage just right, but I don’t have much wiggle room.”

However, the issue of overcrowding is not confined to McLean alone. In fact, according to the FCPS Facility and Enrollment Dashboard, 13 out of 25 high schools in the county were over capacity as of the 2017-18 academic year. School board member Jane Strauss predicts the same pattern of growth will continue to impact the area.

“McLean is overcrowded; Marshall is overcrowded; Centreville High School is overcrowded; Chantilly is overcrowded,” Strauss said. “We are experiencing continued student growth and we are projecting continued growth.”

West Potomac High School is nearly 400 students over capacity, with a student population of 2,593. As a result, West Potomac senior Isabel Parkins has noted similar complications at the hand of severe overcrowding.

“It’s practically impossible not to notice the overcrowding at West Potomac. It’s especially apparent during the passing periods between classes, when hallway traffic comes to a complete standstill,” she said.

Despite a recent increase in the school board’s budget, FCPS remains unable to wholly compensate for the strains of dramatic population growth.

“The Board of Supervisors has allowed us to spend over $155 million a year. They’ve given us an increase of $25 million a year, but in order for us just to catch up with unmet need in the pipeline, we would need a yearly cash flow of about $255 million,” Strauss said. “Our renovations are behind. We need to build new classrooms, new schools. That is our problem.”

Considering the likelihood of continued population growth, the issue of overcrowding is more than a mere surplus of students within the county.

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PLAYING THE CARDS

According to a 1996 Washington Post article, in response to a 1990 census revealing dramatic growth in western Fairfax County, the school board was forced to redraw its boundaries and add the Sully District to its jurisdiction in 1991. Student population remained stagnant for a number of years until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks increased involvement in the nearby Department of Homeland Security in 2001, drawing countless families to the FCPS school system.

Officials such as Division Superintendent Scott Brabrand have publicized the likelihood of an outcome similar to the results of the 1990 census. In this case, Brabrand emphasizes the necessity of boundary changes in order to account for population growth.

“Despite the planned additional capacity intended to address projected needs, uneven membership growth throughout the county will necessitate the continuation of small- and large-scale boundary adjustments to take advantage of available capacity whenever it is practicable to do so,” he said in a school board memo on Dec. 14, 2017.

Despite the advantages, students have concerns regarding the impacts of boundary changes on their school life. While attending McLean, senior Asia Kurtalic resides in the Tysons Corner area, the center of relevant development.

“A big part of why my parents chose to live in Tysons was that they wanted me to attend McLean,” Kurtalic said. “I would probably be pretty upset if a boundary change forced me to transfer schools.”

Disregarding the boundary discussion, local administrators have looked to various construction projects with the hope for a more permanent solution to the issues of overcrowding.

“As we approach the next school year, I try to reach out to the county and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to need some help one way or another—either give us more rooms for outside or do something with our building to help us run our classes,’” Stansbery said.

However, while recognizing the evident need, Sneed said individual renovations occur only every 37 years according to FCPS guidelines.

“Currently, the renovation cycle is 37 years. This amount of time places significant stress upon the systems in the [school] building—electrical, mechanical, roof, for example—due to the lack of funding to replace the systems wholesale before a renovation,” he said.

At the same time, Strauss said any construction project is far too expensive if not for concrete evidence of continued growth.

“We need to make the best use of the tax dollars given to us. We have a decision map for when will we actually use tax dollars to renovate or build new,” she said. “You don’t use those tax dollars until you’re sure that a trend is real.”

Meanwhile, in light of future predictions, the school board hopes to acquire approval for the construction of an entirely new high school within the next five to 10 years.

“The board of supervisors is approving a lot of residential housing and it’s the housing stock that we know is producing a lot of kids,” Strauss said. “There are thousands of new houses going in, so we’re pretty sure we will need a new high school.”

That being said, the costs associated with the construction of a new school will preclude the county from pursuing the renovations of other FCPS schools.

“A typical high school site would cost more than $100 million. Unfortunately, these sums would completely consume the available capital funds, thus setting back renovations or other capacity projects,” Sneed said.

Moreover, recent urban development has made it difficult to acquire land sufficient for construction.

“The lack of affordable and available land has forced us to become more creative to solve the dilemma,” Sneed said. “For example, five years ago we opened an elementary school in the Bailey’s area of the county by adaptively reusing a five-story office building. In December we are opening a three-story elementary school on the McNair Elementary site as we had no suitable options for land.”

In spite of the aforementioned problems, financial barriers remain the driving factor behind the issues of overcrowding.

“Funding is the primary obstacle to our ability to handle the necessary construction in FCPS. Essentially we have an annual shortfall of approximately $68 million just for renovations. This does not include the additional capacity needs as well, which increases the shortfall amount to more than $95 million annually as our enrollment will continue to increase,” Sneed said.

Until the school board reaches a collective decision regarding the countywide issues of overcrowding, students will remain in the packed aisles of buses and teachers will cart their lessons across the halls as growing business commercializes the landscape of Fairfax County.

“My theory is that if there’s money to be made with infrastructure, people are going to figure it out and we’ll have to deal with it after,” Strauss said. “That’s the reality.”

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LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

Major development of Tysons Corner began in 2009 with the construction of the Silver Line Metro. Among the creation of additional employment opportunity, projects like the Silver Line have brought significant growth to the residential sector within Fairfax County.

“We’re seeing growth in more urban areas than you’re seeing in your extended hinterlands, [so] the current housing stock—current apartments and townhouses—have become great places to live and they are affordable,” Strauss said.

At the same time, the appeal of residence within Fairfax County is not only derived from its housing stock. Consistently ranked as one of the best public school systems in the state by U.S. News & World Report, FCPS schools attract a large number of potential students. Principal Ellen Reilly has received inquiries from countries as far as China regarding enrollment at McLean.

“We get emails from China, from Germany all summer long that are like, ‘We want to come to your school. How do we get in?’ [So] I don’t think it’s just overcrowding—I think it’s wanting to be [in FCPS],” she said.Meanwhile, Strauss said an influx of residency can also be attributed to the return of foreign service and state department employees due to recent political developments.

“In parts of the neighborhoods that feed into [the area], I’m hearing anecdotally that families who may work in foreign service or the state department are coming back,” she said. “They’re coming back and not only are they repossessing the homes that they’ve held onto, but they’re coming back with their kids.”

Nonetheless, population growth is not necessarily a negative factor concerning economic advantages for the community. Namely, an influx of new residents causes the value of real estate to rise. However, the funding received by FCPS as a result of residency is not enough to compensate for the corresponding issues.

“About 72 percent of our funding comes from the County Board of Supervisors and about 54 percent of their funding comes from real estate,” Strauss said. “As the value of real estate rises, it creates more revenue for the county as a whole, but it’s not a perfect one to one.”

Frankly, the county’s funding capacities cannot even account for the sheer maintenance of the existing schools within FCPS, let alone the additional stresses of overcrowding. Director of the Office of Design and Construction Kevin Sneed handles the oversight of physical changes to FCPS schools, as well as the management of non-school properties.

“When you consider the fact that we have more than 205 educational facilities totaling nearly 27 million square feet, the funding is not adequate to meet all of the needs of the system,” he said. “The result of the funding shortfall is that we have 798 temporary classrooms in use throughout the county, a backlog of nearly $146 million dollars for our major maintenance items and a very long renovation cycle.”

In addition to budgeting issues associated with overcrowding, there are a number of complications regarding the Virginia Constitution that inhibit accommodation progress. That is to say, each state’s constitution designates the terms of development, whether that is the construction of schools or the funding of public amenities.

“Virginia is a state in which what’s called by-right development is much easier. In other words, the school board can’t say, ‘You can’t build this,’” Strauss said. “The board of supervisors cannot decline a development simply based on the lack of public amenities: roads, schools, sewers, water.”

Consequently, large businesses can develop in Virginia without providing adequate public amenities to potential employees. While this increases employment opportunities, new residents are unable to enroll their children locally, exacerbating the issue of overcrowding in other schools within the county.

“In some states, their local body can say, ‘You cannot build this huge development until we have figured out how to fund your roads, your schools, your curbs or your gutters,’” Strauss said. “But Virginia is the other way around. This means that there is nothing we can do [to stop construction.]”

Alongside these difficulties, Paul Stansbery, Director of Student Services at McLean, said the amount of effort required to merely approve expansion plans within any FCPS school is enough to discourage progress.

“The way the process works is that [the school board] has to develop a plan and then there has to be an election period in order to create what’s called a bond. Then, people have to vote on whether or not they want to pay for that bond,” he said.

Reilly said school administrators are applying great effort to the reduction of issues associated with overcrowding, despite the evident limitations.

“While we want to make change, we have our limits,” she said. “We work within our confines, but we try our very best with what we’re given.” That being said, the addition of trailers and floating classrooms cannot suffice to curb the impacts of a growing student population. As it has before, the solution will most likely stem from the actions of the county as a whole.

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