The Stafford School Board could potentially have six new redistricting plans to consider this week.
After the initial two plans for redistricting the county’s 17 elementary schools were met with widespread disapproval, the board asked Herndon-based consulting firm ARCBridge to go back to the drawing board.
Superintendent Scott Kizner said the consultants have been asked to come up with “common-sense” redistricting proposals that “as much as possible” prioritize proximity between home and school.
Two of the new plans will be revisions of the original plans A and B, though School Board Vice Chairwoman Sarah Chase said, “I can imagine them being quite different [than the originals].”
A fresh plan C will use a different approach suggested by Hartwood School Board member Holly Hazard, Chase said. The consultants have been asked to draw circumferences around each school and, as much as possible, put students within the circumference in that school.
“That may work and it may not,” Chase said. “Because then there is a question of where to put the kids who aren’t in that circumference.”
Three of the new plans will show redistricting options that include a full renovation of both the basement and first floor of Ferry Farm Elementary, which increases capacity for that school.
“But if the lower-level renovation doesn’t happen, we’d rather not have that space used,” Chase said. That would mean reducing Ferry Farm’s capacity by 80 students and the other three plans would take this into account.
All of the new plans also will attempt to balance the distribution of free and reduced lunch recipients across the elementary schools, with no one school having a higher percentage of those students than any school has now, Kizner said.
The proposals will take into account new program capacity set Feb. 2 by the board’s choice of a plan to redistribute special education programs throughout the county, Chase said.
And Chase said the board has instructed ARCBridge to keep all schools between 80 and 91 percent capacity.
The redistricting process began over the summer and is driven by the fact that Winding Creek and Rocky Run elementary schools are operating at 97 percent capacity, while others are underused.
The School Board hired an outside firm to complete the redistricting plan to “avoid advocacy and minimize lobbying,” Kizner said in January, at the first of what were to be a handful of town hall meetings on the two plans ARCBridge presented.
The consultants were 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.
The two plans unveiled in January would have impacted about a quarter of Stafford’s 12,476 public elementary school students.
Stafford parents were overwhelmingly unhappy with both of the plans, voicing concerns about neighborhoods being split, children being sent to faraway schools instead of those closer to their homes and about the enrollment projections for some of the county’s area planning units.
Area planning units are small pieces of geography used by the school division’s planning department to track and project enrollment trends. The division’s website shows a map of 411 area planning units in the county.
At the board’s meeting Tuesday, Stafford parent Sandy Morrison said she thinks the planning unit projections are incorrect. She stated that some neighborhoods where growth is projected, such as Aquia Harbour, Augustine, Hampton Oaks and Austin Ridge, are actually fully developed and therefore would not expect to see growth.
“There is no land available for development in one neighborhood where growth is projected,” Morrison said. “Many parents are concerned with the process. It seems the best information is not being used for the building blocks.
“I think we need a detailed look at whether [planning units] make sense. Quality control is fundamental. The contractor is being set up to fail.”
Michelle Goshorn, a parent of three Stafford students, said many parents agree that the planning unit projections are based on incorrect or misleading data.
“My understanding is [the consultant] used an algorithm that looked at the overall growth of an area and assigned portions of that growth to the planning units,” she said.
Goshorn said she thinks this approach might work on a larger scale, but results in some misleading numbers when it is applied to the small level of a planning unit.
“I think the School Board, in a rush to get a non-biased opinion from a consultant, lost a way to validate and cross-check the data with someone who actually knows Stafford County,” she said.
Kizner said questions about the use of planning units have been given to ARCBridge.
“We expect that they will be working with staff to see which of those comments have justification and where, maybe, our data was correct,” he said.
“This is one of the challenges of a growing community,” Kizner continued. “There are developments that are finished, continuing and in some cases not started yet.”
One parent compiled a spreadsheet that compares the school division’s information about projected enrollment per planning unit with the number of future housing units approved by Stafford’s planning and zoning department.
The parent then estimated the number of future students per planning unit based on the average number of students per home and found that the approved developments would lead to seven elementary schools operating over 100 percent capacity by 2023 under the original plan A.
“Ultimately, we not only need the redistricting done correctly, but we also need at least one new school,” the parent, who asked not to be identified, wrote in an email to The Free Lance–Star.
Chase said the board will continue to advocate for the construction of Stafford’s 18th elementary school.
“The question is when exactly that will be,” she said. “We’re in discussions about what would trigger the start of a new school.”
After holding three town halls on the original two plans, the board was to hold two public hearings at its meetings on Feb. 12 and 26 and make a final decision on Feb. 26. However, last week the board cancelled the public hearings to “review other redistricting plans.”
Kizner said the new plans will be presented to the board at a work session on Saturday. He has asked for the board to vote on a final plan by March 23.
“There are going to be a lot of meetings and discussions,” he said.
Kizner said the board received a lot of feedback on the original redistricting plans, including several hundred emails.
“It’s been refreshing in a lot of ways, to know that people are so involved,” he said. “I recognize and the board knows that this issue is emotional.
“To me, the good news is I haven’t seen one email saying, ‘I definitely want to leave my school.’ That has happened at other places I’ve been. What that says to me is, whatever school these kids go to, they’re going to receive a quality education and be welcomed by staff with open arms.”
Chase said she understands that change is hard, but she “hopes parents realize their children will be able to handle change.”
“They look to their parents for the model on how to handle change,” she said.
Goshorn said that what Stafford parents want most of all are community schools.
“We want kids to go to the school that is closest to them by driving, not by drawing a circle around a school and going as the crow flies,” she said. “We don’t want anybody to be on a bus for an hour, an hour and a half.
“We want community schools.”