Loudoun Board Debates How to Relieve Overcrowded Middle Schools

As Loudoun County school leaders prepare for the opening of four secondary schools over the next five years, School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) says the priority should be on providing immediate relief to extremely overcrowded middle schools south of Rt. 50.

“It is the fastest growing area in the county, one of the fastest growing in the state and the nation,” Morse said during a School Board meeting Tuesday. “At some point, a school has so many students it’s not functional.”

The board is scheduled to adopt new attendance zone boundaries May 10 that could impact students in as many as 31 middle and high schools, from as far north as Ashburn to the southern tip of the county. The changes come ahead of the opening of Brambleton Middle School north of Rt. 50 in August 2017 and the yet-to-be-named high school (HS-11) on the same campus two years later.

Senior school system staff members presented their recommended boundary map earlier this month, and board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) drafted a second proposal, called Plan 2. [View that plan here.]

But Morse said neither of those proposals do enough to bring down enrollment at the county’s most packed schools.

He presented his suggestion, called Plan 3, at the board meeting Tuesday. Its focus is on dropping student populations at secondary schools specifically for the 2017-18 academic year. The Dulles South middle schools will see what’s been called “an enrollment hump” that year, between the opening of Brambleton Middle School and a second not-yet-named middle school (MS-7) on a site along Braddock Road south of Rt. 50 the following year.

[View Plan 3 here.]

Plan 2 would leave Mercer Middle School with 33 percent more students—or about 500 students—above its building capacity for the 2017-18 school year. Morse’s Plan 3 would bring its enrollment down to 1,810 students that year, 19 percent over capacity.

He said, once schools reach 20 percent more students than the building is designed for, “you start putting classrooms out in the hallway and in staff lounges. It is disruptive to the children. It’s disruptive to the students, to the staff.”

Under his plan, Freedom and John Champe high schools and Eagle Ridge Middle School would be the most overcrowded; 17 percent above building capacity for Freedom, and 12 percent for the other two schools. But Morse said those schools are expected to get relief when MS-7 opens in 2018 and when HS-9 opens in 2021. The school system does not yet know where that high school will be built.

Joy Maloney (Broad Run) and Hornberger said they’re concerned that Morse’s plan leaves Eagle Ridge with too many students at the expense of relieving middle schools to the south. Stone Hill Middle School, for example, would open with 400 students, or 31 percent, below capacity.

“It doesn’t seem right to have Eagle Ridge over capacity and have Stone Hill below capacity for so long waiting for growth that may come. If it comes, then we can adjust boundaries then,” Maloney said.

Morse, along with Beth Huck (At Large), noted that there have been thousands of new homes approved for construction near Stone Hill that will likely bring a lot more students—gradually or overnight. Eagle Ridge’s enrollment numbers are more predictable, he said, “while Stone Hill is the wild wild west.”

Sam Adamo, executive director of Planning and Legislative Services, told board members it may be smarter to move fewer students now and make more long-term attendance changes next spring, when they will know HS-9’s location and have updated enrollment projections.

But Morse said it’s unfair to keep putting off relief for the middle schools that have been burdened with the most growth. “I think we can do it now and do it in a measured response as opposed to doing it in a four-month process next spring when we try to do it too quickly, albeit with better numbers.”

The School Board will hold a final public hearing on the boundaries at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 2, with a final vote to adopt an attendance map Tuesday, May 10. The meetings will be held at the school administration building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn.