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The usually fast-growing Prince William school division caught a break in 2018: County schools logged the smallest number of new students since 1984. 

As a result, officials are now mulling changes to the schools’ future building plans to add two more elementary schools as well as several middle school additions aimed at nearly eliminating portable classroom trailers by 2028. 

Enrollment across the county’s 95 schools grew by only 342 students this year, or about 0.4 percent, compared to the 2017-18 school year. That’s 852 students fewer than the school division’s projections.

The school division also welcomed its smallest kindergarten class since 2013 – at 6,254 students. By comparison, county schools enrolled 6,435 new kindergarten students in 2017.

The reduction contributed to the second consecutive drop in overall enrollment at the elementary school level, David Cline, Prince William County schools’ now-retired associate superintendent of finance and support services told school board members during a Jan. 9 work session on proposed changes to the school division’s capital-improvement plan.

The county’s middle and high schools are still gaining students, however, albeit at a slightly lower rate. Enrollment at Prince William’s 16 middle schools was up 1.4 percent this year, while the county’s 12 high schools saw enrollment rise 1.3 percent, according to school division documents.

The lower numbers have also prompted school division officials to reduce enrollment projections over the next 10 years. The school division now expects about 98,000 students will attend county schools in 2028, down 5,900 students from last year’s 10-year estimate, Cline said.

The numbers are driving changes in the school division’s 10-year CIP, which the school board will update as part of its budget discussions this spring. The board is scheduled to take a final vote on revisions to the plan on March 20.

Trailer plan added

The lower-than-expected enrollment numbers are good news for those concerned about classroom trailers and school overcrowding. Because of slower growth, the CIP now includes the two additional elementary schools in eastern Prince William as well as middle-school additions roughly equivalent to 40 percent of a new middle school.

The CIP calls for one additional elementary school in the “Cardinal [Drive] area” to open in 2025 and another to open in the southern stretch of the U.S. 1 corridor – perhaps in the vicinity of Dumfries or Triangle – by 2027, Cline said.

On the middle school level, the plan proposes pushing back a new middle school planned for western Prince William County to sometime beyond 2028. 

Instead, the plan calls for 11-classroom additions at three western county middle schools: Bull Run, Gainesville and Marsteller, by 2022.

The plan also calls for another 24 middle school classes to be added at some other middle school (the plan doesn’t say where) by 2028.

The CIP still calls for a 14th high school to be built within the next 10 years, but pushes off a 15th high school, which had been included in last year’s CIP. The school division’s 13th high school is currently under construction in western Prince William County and scheduled to open in 2021.

The plan pegs the total cost of new schools and additions related to eliminating the trailers at $174 million, or about $30 million more than the most recent estimate of about $143 million. But Cline called the  figure a “snapshot in time” price tag, noting the two elementary schools and middle school additions would be paid for over a stretch of years.

New auxiliary gyms for Gar-Field, Woodbridge high schools

Also new to the plan are some renovations and additions prioritized by the school division’s  infrastructure task force, a group of volunteers who spent the past two years evaluating the ways in which older elementary, middle and high schools fall short of newer school models in terms of classroom space and other facilities.

Cline added auxiliary gymnasiums at Woodbridge and Gar-Field high schools to the CIP to mitigate a current lack of gymnasium space at both schools. While most high schools have the equivalent of three full basketball courts of gymnasium space to accommodate various athletic teams and physical-education classes, Gar-Field and Woodbridge have only one full-sized gym, Cline said.

The new CIP calls for building $4.25 million auxiliary gyms onto both schools as soon as possible. If the school board approves the CIP, construction on both gyms could begin almost immediately and be complete in about 18 months, Cline said.

“They both need [the gyms],” Cline said. “And they need them now.”

The CIP also calls for continuing security-related upgrades at schools where they currently fall short as well as a detailed plan for several school “renewals” and infrastructure renovations.

News that the new auxiliary gyms are being considered by the school board came as a welcome surprise to Woodbridge High School parent Kate Olson Flynn, who has led “Parents Who Care about Schools in Prince William County,” a group of parents who have worked for about two years to raise awareness about lacking facilities at Woodbridge High School.

Flynn said its good news the schools’ lack of sufficient gymnasium space is getting serious consideration. But she and other parents continue to advocate for Woodbridge High to be replaced with a new school.

Flynn noted that the infrastructure task force has called for renewals to Woodbridge, Gar-Field, Stonewall Jackson and Osbourn Park high schools estimated to cost between $25 and $37 million each.

“Once you spend that much fixing up an old high school, doesn’t it make sense to build a new one?” Flynn said.

The school board will continue its discussions on the CIP and the overall budget for the 2019-2020 school year in February.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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