As the School Board prepares its multi-million dollar ask for the county Board of Supervisors to fund six years’ worth of capital projects, one board member says it’s time to make better use of available space rather than construct new buildings, even if it means consolidating schools.
The School Board is in the process of scrutinizing the Capital Improvement Program Superintendent Eric Williams has recommended for fiscal years 2020 through 2025. The program outlines the planned capital projects for the school system. The superintendent is recommending that the School Board request $833.95 million over the next six years to fund dozens of projects, including three elementary schools, a new middle school, a new high school, several classroom additions, and a student welcome and adult education center.
But School Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said that school leaders could save the county money if they use classroom space that is available in schools in the far east and far west ends of the county.
At a work session Nov. 1, Hornberger suggested the board consolidate Lincoln and Hamilton elementary schools into the nearby Kenneth Culbert Elementary School, rather than spend money on renovations and upkeep at the two smaller and older schools.
He pointed out that, on average, elementary schools in western Loudoun are using only 75 percent of their building capacities. Projections show western Loudoun would have enough elementary classroom space through at least 2040, adding just 232 students.
Lincoln enrolls 90 students, with some class sizes with as few as nine students, and Hamilton enrolls 186 students. Reassigning the entire school communities of Lincoln and Hamilton to Culbert would still leave Culbert at 92 percent of its building capacity.
Hornberger said that with land getting more scarce and construction costs on the rise, it’s smart to make better use of the school system’s resources. “So I’m putting this out there to the public…We have the space available, we need to take advantage of it. And we need to not be afraid of (attendance) rezoning, afraid of people throwing socks at us or whatever. It’s our responsibility to look out for the efficiencies of the school system,” he said. “It’s not a matter of picking on small schools because there are some small schools that I think are justified based on their geography. But there are others that may not be.”
He also suggested that his board colleagues consider retrofitting existing space at a school in Sterling for the Student Welcome and Adult Education Center rather than build a new $21.3 million building that the superintendent has recommended.
Board members agree that the center is needed. The planned 45,000-square-foot center will provide a centralized location for English Language Learner students’ instructional program and registration needs, as well as adult education classrooms, meeting rooms and office space, freeing up space those programs have occupied in the school system’s administration building. The school system has not found land for the center but has it scheduled to open in the fall of 2023.
Hornberger said putting the center in a wing of either Sully or Sterling elementary schools could be a better option. They both sit near other schools and work centers where the families who need the center’s services can more easily access them. Plus, he noted, on average, elementary schools in eastern Loudoun are using only 80 percent of their building capacities.
“We need to look at these things and ask is there an alternative approach,” Hornberger said. “If I was sitting on the Board of Supervisors, I would ask is this justifiable, and I’m sitting here having a tough time with that.”
Other board members have not yet weighed in on Hornberger’s suggestions, but Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Kevin Lewis said he would get the board more information on the impacts of consolidating those schools and projects. Hornberger specifically asked that Lewis crunch the numbers and report back to the board how much would be saved if the board followed through with his suggestions.
Ahead of adopting the final program in December, the School Board will hold one more public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19, at the school administration building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn. The CIP will then be sent over to the county Board of Supervisors as a formal funding request.