Be forewarned. Word on the street is that the 13th high school might not happen. Not because of political pressure due to the controversy over the grandiose scale of the 12th high school and its pool, but because the county can’t afford to take on any more debt.
Overcrowding and School Construction
Residents in the western end of the county have grown accustomed to overcrowded schools and jam packed classrooms. Overcrowding is the norm out here, not the exception. And not just mild overcrowding; I mean overcrowding that is so severe that the county has to purchase trailers filled with port-a-potties because there aren’t enough bathrooms, that some kids never set foot inside a building the entire day because they have all their classes in trailers, AND that lunch starts less than a hour after the school day begins and ends less than an hour before the school day ends.
Bristow Run and Cedar Point Elementary Schools were overcapacity the day they opened their doors more than 10 years ago. At one point Cedar Point Elementary, which was built for 800 students, had over 1200 students attending. Monday early closing was almost impossible to do because they couldn’t get all of the kids through lunch. For Bristow Run the relief was supposed to be Cedar Point, but when Cedar Point opened so many new students had arrived that both Bristow Run and Cedar Point were overcapacity. Then relief was supposed to come from Ellis Elementary, and then Victory, and then Glenkirk. Relief finally came for Bristow Run and Cedar Point when T Clay Wood and Piney Branch opened in the Fall of 2011. Victory and Buckland Mills are still overcapacity and won’t see relief, reportedly, until the Haymarket and Devlin Road Elementary Schools open.
So many children showed up the day Marsteller opened it’s doors that they didn’t have enough desks or chairs for the students. At the present time, forty students in one class for Math or Language Arts are the norm at Marsteller. They had to end block scheduling last year because the class sizes were so large they exceeded the state’s legal limits. I’m not sure if the school can add anymore trailers, unless they start using the parking lot for trailers. This isn’t a one or two year thing – it has been this way for years. Marsteller was supposed to be get relief when Gainesville MS opened. Enrollment did go down, but Marsteller was still overcapacity with rising enrollment as the largest classes were still in elementary school. Then relief was supposed to come when Reagan opened, but because Reagan is so far away, few students left Marsteller. Relief is now promised when the K – 8 opens in Nokesville as it will have 300 middle school seats and is only a couple of miles away. Even with 300 fewer students, Marsteller will still be overcapacity and by then Gainesville MS will be bursting at the seams.
Brentsville high school was more than 50% overcapacity for years until Battlefield opened in 2004. Battlefield was almost 500 students overcapacity until Patriot opened in the fall of 2011 and is still overcapacity with rising enrollment. Patriot High School was built to house 2,053 students, will be more than 600 students overcapacity this fall and will be nearly 1,000 students overcapacity in a couple of years. The 13th high school, which is supposed to open in the fall of 2019, 6 years from now, is supposed to relieve that.
Most of the children in the western end of the county have never known schools that weren’t bursting at the seams. Most will gradate before the 13th high school opens its door and will have gone their entire school careers in overcrowded schools with jam packed classes. We ought to be ashamed.
I’m not reminding folks of this just to complain. I’m saying this because what we spend on new school construction affects two things – the amount of money available for school operations and the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is what could very well push the 13th high school out beyond 2020.
Money for School Operations and Paying the Debt
School operations, including debt service, are paid out of the annual allotment of money PWCS receives from the county. It’s called the general fund transfer, and it is 56.75% of tax receipts received by the county. That money is used first to pay the “mortgage” on the debt the school division has incurred with the rest going to pay for school operations. Don’t take my word for it, take the school division’s word from paragraphs 4 and 7 on page 67 of the FY 2013 Approved budget.
Paragraph 4 says, “The FY 2013 County General Fund transfer appropriation totals $445,807,698 of which $377,306,470 is transferred to the school division’s operating fund.”
Note that the difference between what is allocated to the school division’s operating fund and the total that is given is $68,501,228. Where does that go?
Paragraph 7 of the same page says, “The Debt Services Fund is funded through General Fund Transfer ($68,501,228), federal tax credits ($1,495,657) and the capital accumulation reserve ($1,000,000).”
Sorry to burst someone’s bubble, but construction isn’t free and because it comes from the money the school division gets from the county, it affects how much money is available to the schools to reduce class sizes, pay teachers, and buy pencils and paper. Last year PWCS paid $69 million in debt service with county tax receipts. Next year it will pay $72.9 million. That means that next year, $3.9 million more will go to debt service instead of teachers and classrooms. The $3.9 million increase is due to the $69 million school bond issuance that was just approved by the BOCS.
Over the next 5 years PWCS expect to incur more than $500 more million in debt for new school construction, renovations, and renewals. That translates to roughly $28 million per year in additional debt service, and that’s where things get tricky.
The Debt Ceiling
The county has obligations above and beyond just the school division. The county has police, fire, and rescue operations and facilities, park operations and facilities, road construction and maintenance, and school operations and facilities.
The debt ceiling is the amount of debt service the county as a whole can pay each year relative to tax receipts. Just like your mortgage is supposed to be no more than 30% of you pre-tax income, the county’s debt service isn’t supposed to be more than a percentage of the total tax receipts taken in. The amount of debt the county can carry is derived from the amount of debt service we can pay. When tax receipts go up, the amount of debt service we can pay goes up, and the amount of debt we can have outstanding goes up. When tax receipts go down the amount of debt service we can pay and the amount of debt we can have outstanding goes down.
Over the past several years the county has put off a number of road improvements and other projects so that the limited amount of debt we could incur could be dedicated to school construction. With the economy improving, supposedly, those road improvements are back on track. Unfortunately tax receipts aren’t up as much as people had hoped they’d be, so the amount of debt the school division has available isn’t as much as people had expected.
The 13th high school might not happen in 2019. It might not happen in 2020. It might not happen in 2021. And it’s not just the 13th high school that’s in jeopardy. Any project that hasn’t gone to bid is in jeopardy.
It is idiotic to think that we can build grandiose buildings and not have consequences. The 12th high school doesn’t have the student population to fill it, but it will cost $100 million to build, excluding the $11 million for the pool. Patriot high school opened in the fall of 2011 and cost $70.7 million to build. That’s a 36% increase in construction costs since 2011. The increase from Piney Branch to the Haymarket school was only 20%.
And that’s assuming Patriot was the most affordable design possible. I’m not convinced it was.
Building big has consequences. We need to evaluate every penny the school division plans to spend because we will be paying for it in our taxes and our children will be paying for it with the lower quality of their education as they’re crammed into overcrowded schools and jam packed classrooms with burnt out underpaid teachers