Matt Sutton brought 30 handmade signs to Tuesday evening’s town hall meeting on the proposed redistricting of Stafford County’s 17 elementary schools.

The signs read, “Embrey Mill chooses Plan A.”

“Our neighborhood bleeds for Winding Creek,” Sutton said. “There are even people who live in Embrey Mill who don’t have children but still volunteer at the school. We need to stay there.”

Under one of two plans for redistricting presented to the Stafford School Board by ARCBridge Consulting last month, students who live in Embrey Mill would move from Winding Creek to Park Ridge Elementary School.

Sutton said he has a kindergartner and a third-grader at Winding Creek now, and another child at home who will start kindergarten in August 2019, when redistricting changes will go into effect.

“When my [third-grade] daughter asked why I was coming out tonight, I told her, ‘I’m going to fight to keep you at the school you love,’ ” Sutton said. “When she found out she might be going to a different school next year, she curled up in a ball and cried.”

Sutton was one of many passionate parents who attended the first of three town hall meetings held to gather community input on the two redistricting plans. Two hundred chairs were set up in the Drew Middle School gym and the audience overflowed to bleachers along the side of the room.

Attendees were busy scribbling their questions on cards throughout the meeting. Members of Stafford County Public Schools’ communications staff collected the cards to be read aloud by schools spokeswoman Sherrie Johnson.

Present to answer the questions were Priti Mathur of ARCBridge Consulting, Superintendent Scott Kizner, Assistant Superintendent for Operations Scott Horan and Supervisor of Planning and GIS Matt Townsend. Members of the School Board were present to listen but did not comment.

Supervisors Meg Bohmke, Jack Cavalier and Gary Snellings also attended.

The need to redistrict the county’s 17 elementary schools was driven by the county’s purchase last year of a shuttered Christian school off Garrisonville Road. Stafford plans to house the school division’s early childhood programs there, freeing up classroom space in many of the elementary schools.

Some of the county’s elementary schools are underused, while others are approaching capacity, according to the consultants.

Garrisonville and Rockhill schools are operating at 65 and 67 percent capacity, respectively—while Rocky Run and Winding Creek are operating at 97 percent capacity.

Rather than create a redistricting committee of parents and community members, the School Board hired a consultant to redraw elementary school attendance zones to “avoid strong advocacy and minimize lobbying,” Kizner said Tuesday.

“[The board] wanted to keep the process neutral and moving forward,” he said.

Mathur said the consultant was given five priorities to guide the process—balancing enrollment across the elementary schools by aiming for 85.6 percent capacity use by the fourth year, proximity to schools, contiguity and connectivity, keeping neighborhoods together “as much as possible” and using the school division’s planning units and 10-year enrollment projections.

ARCBridge presented two possible redistricting plans earlier this month. Under Plan A, 3,192 students—out of a county wide total of 12,476 elementary students—would change schools and 11 neighborhoods would be split.

Plan B would affect 3,800 students and split 16 neighborhoods.

Under Plan A, minimum capacity in the fourth year—the 2022–23 school year—would be close to 83 percent at Hartwood and the maximum would be 90 percent at Moncure.

Under Plan B, minimum capacity in the fourth year would be almost 80 percent at Hartwood and maximum capacity would be 88 percent at Conway.

Fifth-graders who are slated to move will be given the option to stay at the school they attend now, Kizner said, but their parents would have to drive them to school.

Under the proposals, Winding Creek and Rocky Run elementary schools could lose nearly a quarter of their student populations next school year.

Conversely, enrollments at four other elementary schools—Ferry Farm, Garrisonville, Anne E. Moncure and Rockhill—could increase by more than 100 students each.

Most elementary schools would be at less than 90 percent capacity next school year under both proposals, with the exception of Ferry Farm, Hampton Oaks, Kate Waller Barrett and Moncure, according to the consultant’s projections.

Ferry Farm—the county’s oldest elementary school—is projected to be at 97 percent capacity by 2025 under Plan B, which would move the neighborhoods of Olde Forge and Rappahannock Landing into its attendance zone. Students from those neighborhoods now attend Rocky Run.

Many of the questions Tuesday night came from parents concerned about increased transportation time for their children to the new schools.

Though Horan said the transportation department didn’t anticipate any bus rides to be longer than they already are, and only a minimal cost difference under the new plan, “if any at all,” audience members didn’t accept this answer, muttering, “That’s not true” and “That’s not accurate.”

Other questions that were met with applause concerned the splitting of neighborhoods—such as Hampton Oaks, which could be split among Hampton Oaks, Barrett, Park Ridge and Moncure under the plans—and how the strength of parent–teacher organizations would be affected by the removal of students from certain neighborhoods, such as Aquia Harbour, which would go from Moncure to Hampton Oaks.

In response, Horan said, “The consultant looked at the way they felt would achieve 85 percent capacity. As you push one way, something has to give another way. We’re relying on the consultant’s professional, nonbiased opinion.”

And Kizner said he was sure new parents would step up to bolster parent–teacher organizations.

Responding to a question about why only two plans were presented, Kizner said the School Board felt “fewer options would be better than too many.”

He said every comment and question will be heard and taken into account and that the board can ask for a third option if it feels that is warranted.

Another question that was met with applause was why the school division “hasn’t been more demanding” of the Board of Supervisors concerning development.

Responding to this, Supervisor Meg Bohmke said in an interview that many of the county’s large developments, such as Embrey Mill and Leeland Station, were approved in the 1980s and ’90s.

“These are not things our current board has approved,” she said. “They are by-right subdivisions. If people own the land, we can’t tell them they can’t develop.”

“We haven’t dealt with rezonings for two years,” she added.

The town hall ended at 8:30 p.m. without all the questions being read. Kizner emphasized that there will be two additional town halls Thursday and Wednesday, as well as two opportunities for the public to speak before the School Board on Feb. 12 and 26.

James Ballast, a resident of Hampton Oaks whose two children attend Hampton Oaks Elementary, said he hopes the School Board will “put a personal touch back in” to their deliberations.

“With the accelerated school year, it doesn’t give the community enough time for input,” he said.

He said his family moved to that neighborhood five years ago specifically so that his children could attend Hampton Oaks Elementary. Under both proposed redistricting plans, they would attend Park Ridge next school year.

He said the proposed redistricting plans for his neighborhood don’t meet three of the consultant’s five priorities.

“We live 10 houses from Hampton Oaks,” Ballast said. “I don’t want to see my kids becoming commuters like I am.”

Information about the redistricting process and contact links are available online at staffordschools.net/Domain/4782.

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 auphaus@freelancestar.com @flsadele

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