The Stafford County School Board may turn to outside help when it takes up the politically painful process of redrawing elementary school attendance zones.

Members this week seemed to agree that they should hire a consultant to come up with redistricting proposals to address over- and under-crowded elementary schools. “They have no dog in the fight,” board member Irene Egan said during a work session Tuesday.

The School Board also would hold public meetings to solicit feedback on a consultant’s proposals. Chairwoman Patricia Healy said the entire process could take up to eight months.

The discussion came a week after the Board of Supervisors—which controls the purse strings—voted to send a letter to Healy stating that this year’s proposed $10 million-plus purchase of Fredericksburg Christian School’s shuttered campus off Garrisonville Road is contingent on a countywide elementary school redistricting plan. School Board members this week reaffirmed their plan to reconfigure elementary school attendance zones by the 2019–20 school year, but said that would be possible only if the county buys the Christian school to free up classroom space.

The School Board requested money for the former, 20-classroom private school, which would serve Head Start students from North Stafford and 3- and 4-year-olds in the Early Childhood Special Education program starting in fall 2019. The preschoolers in the special education program meet at various elementary schools throughout Stafford, and moving them to the former private school would free up a significant amount of classroom space.

Egan, who proposed hiring a consultant to come up with redistricting proposals, said attendance- zone changes have not gone well in recent years because “everybody’s got their people they want to protect and their areas they want to protect.”

“I get it,” she added.

Healy said a consultant would not be cheap, but that she liked the idea of hiring what she called an “objective” and “data-driven” expert. The School Board will need to solicit proposals from consultants and vote on a contract.

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.

Proponents of redistricting Stafford’s elementary schools note that some of them have too many students and vice versa for others.

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.

“There’s nothing more painful than a redistricting,” Healy said.

“But to me, as much pain as we will be looking at, I think we have an opportunity to make some things right,” she added.

In other business, the School Board heard a presentation on proposals to renovate and expand Ferry Farm Elementary School at a cost of about $10.8 million. Members did not vote on a design, but appeared to prefer a plan to lightly renovate the school’s oldest wing—built in the 1950s—over the option to rebuild it.

That plan also includes an 11,160-square-foot addition next to the oldest wing. An 11,435-square-foot section of the school near the cafeteria would be gutted and turned into administrative offices and a library that would be the “new heart of the school.” The main entrance would also move to what is now a secondary entrance near the cafeteria.

The School Board hopes to complete the work before the start of the 2020–21 school year. The county’s nonbinding capital plan includes $10.8 million for improvements to Ferry Farm, an amount some say is inadequate compared with the pricier upgrades at other elementary schools.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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