The Stafford County School Board formally committed this week to the politically painful process of redrawing elementary school attendance zones.

But a consultant with no ties to the county will likely come up with proposals for a countywide redistricting plan that would take effect next summer. The School Board hopes to solicit bids from consultants soon, with the expectation of paying from $50,000 to $70,000 for the work.

The Board of Supervisors, which determines how much county tax money schools receive, asked the School Board last month to commit to the process with the goal of addressing over- and under-crowded elementary schools. Supervisors tied that commitment to the School Board’s request for $10 million-plus to buy Fredericksburg Christian School’s shuttered campus off Garrisonville Road, which would house a public preschool program that currently meets in elementary school classrooms.

The ensuing back-and-forth is indicative of the distrust between the elected bodies.

School Board members said at a meeting in mid-July that they were on board with the redistricting process, but did not take a vote. About a month later, County Administrator Tom Foley sent an email to acting Superintendent Pamela Kahle stating that supervisors requested a “formal affirmation” from the School Board.

“It is understood that the School Board may be in the initial planning stages and the Board is not requesting a detailed plan,” Foley wrote.

So the School Board unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday pledging to redistrict elementary-schoolers if the former Christian school can be converted into a public preschool by next summer. Head Start students from North Stafford and 3- and 4-year-olds in the Early Childhood Special Education program would occupy the facility, freeing up a significant amount of classroom space in elementary schools.

Supervisors held a public hearing last week on a proposal to borrow up to $25 million in mid-November for the Christian school purchase, renovations to Ferry Farm Elementary School and other capital projects at schools. They tabled a vote on the matter until Tuesday, partly because the School Board had not formally committed to the redistricting process.

Supervisors also asked the School Board for a detailed report on the projected costs of the new Moncure Elementary School, which is scheduled to open next summer. The School Board requested an additional $1 million this year to complete the $36.6 million project on Juggins Road.

Five of Stafford’s 17 elementary schools—Falmouth, Hampton Oaks, Hartwood, Margaret Brent and Winding Creek—are expected to be over capacity next school year and at least four others will be near capacity. But projections show six elementary schools will each be under capacity by more than 100 students.

School Board member Irene Egan first suggested hiring a consultant to come up with redistricting proposals because it could do so more objectively.

A firm hired to help find Stafford’s next superintendent released a report earlier this year saying the new schools chief must deal with the perception that more affluent parents wield the most influence—particularly when it comes to redistricting.

The last redistricting process brought out residents “who openly disparaged schools with larger populations of minority students and/or students in poverty,” according to the report by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. The report is apparently referring to parents’ opposition to last year’s proposal to move part of Colonial Forge High School’s attendance zone to the more diverse North Stafford High School, where 42 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

The School Board voted in March 2017 to let siblings of current Colonial Forge students enroll in the high school, regardless of their attendance zone.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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