If there’s one thing Loudoun County knows how to do well, it’s school construction.
The school system has built and opened 21 school buildings in the past decade. In 2010, the construction team adopted ready-made prototypes for elementary, middle and high school designs to bring down costs and speed up construction, as it worked to keep pace with unprecedented enrollment growth.
But now, the coming Metro stations brings a push toward urban community designs and school system leaders might have to rethink what a typical Loudoun County school looks like.
As county supervisors plan for what type of homes, retail, office space, and, yes, schools will surround the future Metro stations, they are asking members of the Loudoun County School Board and the schools’ construction department to get ready to think creatively.
“For many reasons modern, town center-style school sites are definitely something we have to consider,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run), who represents the part of the county that will include the Loudoun Gateway and Ashburn stations and land near Innovation Center station.
School leaders have described the potential new model as “Metro schools.” The county staff has called them “urban-style schools.” Whatever the term, the idea is for elementary, middle or high school to have several stories and less open space, plus modified designs to allow for some parking and fields.
Schools like this will definitely be needed as Metro’s extension into Loudoun County comes online in 2020, according to a report from consultant MTFA Architecture. Two major developments, Waterside and The Hub, already have been approved near the Innovation Station at Loudoun’s eastern boundary and Ashburn Station will be surrounded by The Gramercy District, Loudoun Station and Moorefield Station developments.
“It is essential that the school be planned and developed to respond to the unique needs of a more densely populated community and the demands and influences of a more urbanized community fabric,” the report states.
School Board members sounded caught off guard when Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis brought up the idea at their meeting last week.
“This is kind of blindsiding me. It almost sounds like they’re looking for a utopian community,” School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said. “We’re saying urban-style schools, but it’s not like we’re in the middle of New York City here. It’s not like we can’t build a school outside of that Metro area.”
“This is kind of huge,” said Debbie Rose (Algonkian). “It has to be brought up with the stakeholders and constituents.”
Several board members are concerned that the schools would offer fewer services than other Loudoun schools, with little room for athletic fields, tracks or playground equipment.
“Athletic facilities don’t have to be right on the campus,” Tom Marshall (Leesburg) added.
Joy Maloney (Broad Run) responded, “Sounds like a comment from someone who doesn’t have constituents there.”
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) suggested his colleagues hold a work session to hash out details on what type of services should be offered at town center-style schools and whether the schools would enroll just students from the new Metro developments or students in already established neighborhoods.
And whatever the School Board’s decision on future school designs, it needs to be made quickly, Morse stressed. “If we don’t provide input now, I’m concerned that [supervisors] will move this train further down the rails before we get on, and then we’re playing catch up,” he said. “We need to tell the Board of Supervisors that not only are we engaged, but say what we anticipate a school in metropolitan Loudoun would look like.”
Changing what schools look like near Metro is likely not an option but a must, Meyer said. He noted that the tax districts set up around the stations to help pay for the rail line will be for naught if county facilities like schools take up large swaths of land, leaving little room for tax-generating businesses.
“These are the questions that we are going to have to deal with, unless someone can show me 75 acres in that area that doesn’t destroy our tax base—that’s what we got for signing up for Metro,” he said.
Meyer said that not providing school sites near Metro would mean overfilling the already crowded schools in the area. Plus, he expects families moving into Metro housing developments marketed as walkable communities will want town center-style schools nearby. Some of the townhomes, he said, could be as big as 1,800 square feet.
“That’s big enough for three bedrooms, so we better be ready for kids,” Meyer said.
The consultant’s report points to several schools near Metro stations in Fairfax County as models for Loudoun. Fairfax also has three elementary schools near Metro stations that sit on 12 acres or less and are built for as few as 540 students and as many as 948 students. The consultant’s report crunched the numbers, equating one school, Hunters Wood Elementary near the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, to 105 square feet per student. By comparison, Loudoun County’s newest school, Madison’s Trust Elementary School, averages 114 square feet per student.
Lewis said his construction team is “ready and willing” to consider new school designs if the School Board gives him that direction. He is the assistant superintendent of Support Services, and formerly oversaw the construction department during some of its busiest years when it implemented the current prototype design for the schools.
“This is an opportunity for us to collaborate and work together with county staff that meets the needs of the small area plan and also meets the instructional needs,” he said, and he stressed that the construction team’s focus will remain on building designs that are education venues first and foremost. “The Department of Instruction is our client—we’re designing and building buildings with a priority on teaching kids.”
The School Board is expected to hold a work session on the idea next week. Supervisors are taking input now on the Silver Line Small Area Plan—the blueprint for what development will look like around the Metro stations—and scheduled to adopt it this fall.