Household Income

The endless debates about household income and how wealthy PWC is relative to the rest of the country have become tiring.  Yes, we’re a high income county, but, as this chart demonstrates, we’re one of the poorest of the high income counties in the area.  Our property taxes, as a percentage of household income, are amount the highest in the region, even though our homes values are among the lowest.

When I get the time, I’ll update the chart to include the proposed budgets from the counties around the region.  Last year, the local dollars per pupil and percentage of undesignated revenue allocated to public schools by PWC were among the lowest / smallest in the region.

household income

Who Are We and Why Are We here?

It’s budget season again, and I’ve re-found my desire to write, so I thought I’d give everyone a homework assignment to get things started again.

Last week PWCS posted the agenda for the next school board meeting.  Included in that agenda was an item from the Chairman proposing that the school board provide the Superintendent with guidance to help school division develop the budget for next school year. That proposed guidance reads as follows:

That the Prince William County School Board provide the Superintendent the following guidance in completing his FY 2015-16 budget:
1. Incorporate the reduction of approximately $11 million in revenue resulting from the BOCS budget guidance of a 1.3% increase in tax bills (versus the 4% increase previously adopted in the 5-year plan);
2. Include funding for an additional grade year of class size reductions by one student;
3. Include funding for a step increase for employees;
4. Cut or eliminate discretionary educational programs to balance the budget resulting from the above cuts and directed funding, to include:
a. Non-Title I Full Day Kindergarten,
b. Transportation for Specialty Programs,
c. All new CIP efforts for FY 2015-16 whether cash or debt funded, and
d. Any other discretionary programs as necessary to balance the budget.
5. Report to the School Board the concurrent reductions in administrative and management personnel resulting from the above program cuts.

This proposed guidance has generated some vigorous conversations in the community; conversations that have even been carried at WTOP.  The members of the budget committee discussed the proposed guidance and what we thought of it tonight, and it was an interesting discussion.

My conclusion is that the guidance is a starting point in a long overdue conversation about what we as a community want from our public schools.  In my opinion, the school division’s budget should reflect the priorities we’ve set for the school division.  In other words, in my opinion, we’ve been budgeting all wrong all along.

Generally, and grossly oversimplified,  the school division builds the budget for the next school year by taking the budget from the previous year, adding in a factor for inflation, compensation adjustments,  and new student growth, and what they end up with is the next year’s budget.  From there adjustments are proposed by school board members, but rarely implemented.

The problem with this process is that we haven’t defined what we think our school division’s priorities are.  We just keep plodding along in whatever direction we’re heading, hoping we get to wherever it is we want to go.  Where we want to go, and how to best get there, has never been defined. If reducing class sizes is our highest priority, then reducing class sizes should be funded before anything else, not only if there’s anything left over.  If increasing faculty and staff compensation so that it’s competitive with area norms is our top pretty, then increasing compensation should be funded before anything else, not only if there’s something left over at the end of the process.

I’m going to assume that this proposed guidance is designed to us started in determining what we want from our school division and what we think are our highest priorities.

My proposal is to start with core academic services and add on from there.  Core services being those things that are necessary to get our children to college or ready to start their careers.

Your homework is to tell the world what you think.  Start by defining core services and then move on to extras.

Are core services just graduation and statutory requirements?  Is it graduation requirements plus vocational / technical education?  Does it include AP / IB / Cambridge courses?  Does it include paying for students to take the PSAT, ACT, and AP exams, something PWCS has done for years because it improved our rankings in the Washington Post’s challenge index and other such rankings?  What is the largest class size you think we should have to provide the education necessary for our children to be college or career ready upon graduation?  Do core services include sports and extra-curricular clubs or groups?

Let’s start the conversation.  Post your thoughts here, or on our Facebook page.


Bad Information Results in Bad Decisions

On September 30 of every year, public schools in Virginia must report their official student enrollment to the state.  This report becomes part of the basis upon which funding for public schools is allocated from the state to local school districts. Funding from the state is provided for every student counted in the September 30 official student enrollment report.  The state doesn’t provide funding for students arriving after September 30.

PWCS’ official student enrollment report for the 2014 – 2015 school year is here.  

From a financial standpoint, this report is invaluable.

From a planning standpoint, however, this report is almost worthless.

The purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide a snap shot of student enrollment at a given point in time, and that’s what it does.  Looking at the report you notice:

  • that PWCS has a lot of trailers – 121 at the elementary level, 22 at the middle school level, and 37 at the high school level, with 20 of those at one school.
  • that almost the same number of elementary schools are above 105% of capacity as are below 90% of capacity.
  • that 521 students are enrollment in pre-school programs in PWC public schools.
  • that Gar-filed high school is 360 students below capacity, and Hylton is 365 above capacity
  • that Potomac high school is 615 students below capacity, and Patriot high school is 769 students above capacity.

If you look closely, you also notice that some elementary schools are below capacity, but have trailers.  Some others are at capacity or only slightly over, but they also have trailers.

For example, Ellis elementary school is currently at 92.5% of capacity, but has a trailer.  Ellis is home to Virginia Pre-school Initiative classrooms, so, while Ellis is below capacity at the K-5 level, when pre-K is added, Ellis is over capacity.  Because some classrooms are smaller than the planning capacity, like some title-1 classrooms, you can end up with a school that’s below planning capacity, but needs trailers because it’s out of classrooms.

There are reasons for that, but you won’t find the answers on any official PWCS publication that’s released to the public, assuming such a report exists.    That’s because the purpose of the official student enrollment report is to provide the number of students enrolled on September 30.

From a planning standpoint, citizens, government employees, and public officials need to know about classroom space at each school.  They need to know how many regular ed, special ed, pre-school, ESOL, and resource rooms there are at each school.  They need to know how many of those rooms are being used for instruction, both full and part time, and how many are empty.  They need to know how many trailers are at each school and what those trailers are used for.

Information like that informs all of us about where the needs are.  It lets us know why the 10 room planned addition at one school will only add 125 additional seats at that school instead of 250 (because 5 of the rooms will be used for self-contained SPED classrooms).  It lets us know why schools that appear to be below capacity, may actually be overcapacity.

Unfortunately, PWCS doesn’t have a report that conveys that information.  At least not one that is released and available to the public.  The enrollment reports in the CIP are the official student enrollment with enrollment projected several years into he future.  While that report conveys projected growth, it doesn’t say anything about classrooms availability.

Lack of information about available space in schools is one of the primary challenges our county faces in effectively planning for growth.

Loudoun County figured that out a few years ago, and began providing information about available space in their schools in their CIP (see here, page 15).

I’ve been harping about development and growth for some time on this blog and elsewhere.  I, and many others, have complained that our county keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and doesn’t seem to have learned.

I think we keep repeating the same mistakes because we don’t have the information we need to make good decisions. Good decisions aren’t guaranteed with good information, but bad decisions are almost certain with bad information.

I hope PWCS starts providing information like Loudoun does, so that we can make better decisions in the future.

West End High School Enrollment

Sometimes what we aren’t told is more important than what we are told.

As I was reading the application for Stone Haven, a 1650 home development proposed in the Brentsville District, I paid close attention to the section on schools.  I noticed that 297 high school students were projected to arrive when their families move to Stone Haven.    The report also noted that the high schools in the area were overcrowded, and stated that the 13th high school, with a capacity of 2,053 students would be built in the community.

I found this interesting because the implication was that the 13th high school, with it’s 2,053 student capacity, would be more than sufficient for the development and region.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Reality is that the 13th high school is already projected to be overcapacity when it opens and that Stone Haven will further exacerbate that overcrowding.

Here is a link to the spreadsheet I presented at the Oct 7, 2014 BOCS meeting on the capacity of high schools in the western end of the county and projected enrollment in those schools (BOCS). It contains projected enrollment figures for high schools in the western end of Prince William County, from this school year to the Fall of 2021.

The numbers listed in the columns for 2014 were obtained from the approved CIP for FY 2015 – 2024 from the PWCS facilities  publications webs site.  They show that, as of this fall, the capacity of the 4 west end high schools is about 7,700 and enrollment is about 9,000.  That leaves west end high school roughly 18% overcapacity, with rising enrollment.  Patriot high school is currently about 40% overcapacity, though it’s enrollment is, reportedly, steady.

In the Fall of 2016 the 12th high school is projected to open.  Boundaries will change when that school opens, and enrollment figures will fluctuate.  The numbers listed in the columns for Fall 2019 and Fall 2021 are from PWCS’ recommended boundary plan for the 12th high school (v1.2).  They reflect the projected enrollment for west end high schools AFTER that boundary change plan has been implemented.

With the opening of the 13th high school, in 2019, the capacity for west end high schools will increase to about 9,700 students.  Enrollment in 2019, without Stone Haven, is projected to be about 9,500 students; about 2% under capacity.  However, 2 year later, by 2021, enrollment in western end high schools will exceed 10,000; roughly 3% overcapacity.

According to the application filed on Stone Haven, student enrollment projections can vary as much as 50% in either direction.  PWCS projects that Stone Haven will add between 149 and 446 additional high school students, with a mid-point of 297.

Adding an additional 297 students to west end schools means that enrollment in those schools will have risen to about 10,300 by the Fall of 2021, leaving those schools roughly 6% overcapacity overall.

If you also take Potomac Station (2000 – 2500 proposed homes), Birkwood at Braemar (52 proposed homes), and Pioneer Assemblage (600 – 800 homes) into account, the 6% overcapacity in 2021 is more like 18% overcapacity.  That means that in 2021, residents of the western end of the county will still be dealing with high schools that are just as overcrowded as they are now.

Things are not hopeless.  There is a possible solution, one which was proposed by Gil Trenum at the most recent school board meeting.  Mr Trenum asked the school division to reconsider the plans the 13th high school with the intent being to increase its size to about 2,500 students.  I agree with Mr Trenum.  We can’t keep building 2000 student high schools and jamming them with 2700 kids.  If we need 2500 or 2700 student high schools, because high schools are too expense, land intensive, and time consuming to build, then we should build high schools that are large enough to accommodate the student population we have.

The BOCS voted unanimously to defer the vote on Stone Haven until the school division has prepared preliminary plans and cost estimates for a larger 13th high school.  The public hearing was left open, so citizens will have an opportunity to provide feedback when Stone Haven is again brought forward.  That meeting is scheduled for the 3rd BOCS meeting in January.

Let’s Build for Reality, not a Fantasy

At the October 1st School Board meeting, school board members will be asked to decide whether to award a sole source contract to Moseley Architects for “architectural and engineering design services of the 13th High School”.  The cost of the contract is $3,475,750.

The staff report on the award states that using the Battlefield / Freedom prototype, which has been built several times it the past in the county at Hylton, Freedom, and Battlefield, will be $1.3 million less than the cost of developing an entirely new plan.

That goodness for fiscal restraint!

Last year there was a debate about which design to use for the 13th high school – the Hylton / Freedom / Battlefield design, which was characterized as dark and dreary but affordable, or the Patriot / 12th high school design, which was characterized as bright and cheery but expensive.  That was a stupid debate.

The 13th high school is, by some accounts, already overcrowded.  It won’t open until the fall of 2019 or 2020, and it’s already overcapacity.

The debate last year shouldn’t have been about which style building to use, it should have been about how big the school should be.

Both designs have a capacity of 2053 students, but both Battlefield and Patriot have more then 2500 students enrolled.  In fact, both will have enrollment that exceeds 2700 in the near future.

Why are we building 2053 student high schools, when we jam pack them with 2500 – 2700 students and then have trailer parks out back?  Shouldn’t we build the high school to accommodate more students?

I encourage our school board members to vote against awarding the contract and instead to consider changing the 13th high school from a 2053 student school to a 2500 – 2700 student school.  Our school construction projects need to start reflecting the reality of what we’re dealing with in terms of population, rather than some fantasy that has never been nor will ever be realized.

The Consent of the Governed

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

With these words our Founders began defending their choice to declare independence from England.  Their explanation was so profound that it changed the world.

They said that we are all equal, that we have all have the same exact rights, and that those rights are part of our physical being and can’t be separated from us.  They said that the Government exists to protect and secure those rights, and that its power to do so is derived solely at the consent of the Governed.

With Scotland’s failed independence bid last week, thoughts of why our Founders and the people who lived here nearly 235 years ago chose to throw the English out have been floating around in my head quite a bit.  It was in the midst of those rather deep thoughts that I ran across an article in Bristow Beat that raised my hackles.  My representative on the Board of County Supervisors has just resigned.  He’s been appointed to the judiciary, and, while he won’t be a judge until January, he has resigned his position as my representative because judges aren’t supposed to engage in politics.

That means that everyone else who lives in Brentsville District is without representation on the BOCS.

The thing about elected representatives is that if you don’t like how they behave or vote, you can vote for the other person in the next election.  You can run against them, if you like.  There are no lifetime appointments to representative positions here in the US, and there is no hereditary progression. Our leaders are elected to their posts and continue to serve in them until we get so sick of them that we fire them and elect someone else.

The ability of the electorate to vote someone out of office is what forces our elected officials to pay attention to us.

Between now and the special election, we citizens of Brentsville District have no elected representation on the BOCS.  There is no one who has to listen to us because his / her job depends on how well they listen to us.

Several major projects that will impact the lives of every Brentsville District resident are likely to come before the board before the special election: Stone Haven, Birkwood at Braemar, and, possibly, opening the rural crescent to development.

A three month delay won’t stop or otherwise impair any of these issues.  Other school divisions build schools much faster than PWCS, at lower cost, so a three month delay in acquiring the land for the 13th high school shouldn’t have adverse consequences on the school’s construction schedule.  If the school division was so concerned about acquiring a site for the 13th high school then they should have made acquiring land for it a priority; after all, they’ve had since 2009 to do so!

We deserve to have elected representation on the board before those projects, or any projects that affect Brentsville District,  are considered.  I find it unconscionable that the Board of County Supervisors would consider allowing votes on projects that will have a impact on the daily loves of Brentsville residents, when we don’t have an elected representative.

If you have the time, send an email to every BOCS member, asking them to delay votes of projects in the Brentsville District until our next representative is sworn in and takes his / her seat.  You can find their contact information here.  

I support Jeanine Lawson for Brentsville District Supervisor

Eleven years ago I attended the first meeting of the Prince William County School Board that I’d ever attended.  My youngest child, who attended with me, was 5 months old.  My oldest child, who stayed home, was 3.  It seems strange, now, that I attended and sat through a several hours long school board meeting, with a 5 month old in tow, when my own children wouldn’t even be attending public school for another 2 years.

Overcrowding at Cedar Point Elementary is what compelled me to attend that meeting.

Despite opening 3 new elementary schools, Ellis in 2004 and Victory and Glenkirk in 2005, Cedar Point would remain overcapacity, generally with enrollment over 1100 students in a school built for 850, until the fall of 2011 when T Clay Wood opened less than 1 mile away.

It took PWCS from 2001 until the fall of 2011 to finally relieve overcrowding at Cedar Point.  Victory, Glenkirk, and T Clay are currently overcapacity.  It won’t be until next fall, in 2015, when the Devlin Rd Elementary school opens, that overcrowding at those schools will hopefully, finally, be relieved.

That’s 14 years.

Marsteller Middle School is where many of the kids who attend these schools go after they complete elementary school.  The new Marsteller opened its doors in 2002, and was overcapacity the day it opened its doors.  So many students registered in the summer that they didn’t have enough desks or chairs on the first day.

In the year before Gainesville Middle School opened its doors in the fall of 2007, Marsteller had over 1700 students enrolled, in a school built for 1200.  Marsteller was still overcapacity after GVMS opened, and remains that way today despite Regan opening in the fall of 2012 and the K-8 opening this fall.  Another middle school, the ‘West End” middle school, will open in the fall of 2018 2019, to relieve overcrowding at Marsteller and Gainesville.

Assuming the “west end” middle school won’t be overcrowded the day it opens its doors, it will have taken PWCS from 2002 to 2018 to relieve overcrowding at the middle school level in the Brentsville / Gainesville area.

That’s 16 years.

The children who attend Marsteller and Gainesville Middle Schools and the K-8 mostly go to Battlefield, Patriot, Brentsville, and Stonewall.   Battlefield opened in the fall of 2004 and was overcapacity shortly thereafter.  Prior to the opening of Patriot High School in the fall of 2011, Brentsville High School had so many “extra” students that they had one way hallways, used the auditorium to provide seating for lunch, and some kids had so many classes in trailers that they never set foot inside the building, except for lunch.  It was overcrowding at Brentsville that opened our eyes to such things as bathroom trailers, which are trailers that have bathrooms in them, because there weren’t enough bathrooms in the building for all the students attending.  Overcrowding at Glenkirk elementary was so bad that they had a bathroom trailer at an elementary school.

Battlefield was about 20% overcapacity last year and will be overcapacity this school year with rising enrollment in subsequent years.  Stonewall will be overcapacity this year with rising enrollment in subsequent years.  Brentsville is projected to go overcapacity next school year with rising enrollment in subsequent years.  And Patriot, Patriot is nearly 800 students overcapacity this year, but it’s enrollment is expected to stabilize next year at between 700 and 800 students overcapacity.

Battlefield opened in the fall of 2004.  The 13th high school is expected to provide relief to the western end high schools when it opens in the fall of 2019, though by many calculations it is already overcapacity.

That’s 15 years.

Children, god willing, get older every year.  The day they’re born, you can predict, almost to the day, when they’ll graduate from high school.  Most children spend 12 years in public K -12 school.  My oldest was born in late 2000.  He’s in 8th grade this year and will graduate before overcrowding is relieved in Brentsville area high schools.  His entire school career will have been spent in schools that are overcrowded to the bursting point.

None of this overcrowding was a surprise. It was known and expected, and available in documents published by PWCS to anyone who cared to look.

For as long as I’ve been watching the BOCS and school board, we parents have been promised that relief would come when the next school opened.  We’ve been told that the county HAD to accept new housing developments because the site for the new school was desperately needed.  What we weren’t told, but figured out by looking at the numbers, was that all the houses that came with the new developments meant the desperately needed new schools would be overcapacity before they even opened their doors (see Ellis, Victory, Glenkirk,  TClay, Gainesville Middle, Reagan Middle, the K-8, and Patriot).  It meant that PWCS kept building schools, but couldn’t keep up with rising student enrollment.

Problems like this don’t happen by accident.  They happen when our elected officials prefer to be blissfully ignorant of the impacts of proposed development and when voters don’t take a stand.

Fifteen years is more than a few elections; elections which presented voters with opportunities to change the way things are done in Prince William County.

The unanswered question is whether we’ll choose to do so.

On October 1 Brentsville District residents will be faced with a choice between two candidates to represent them on the BOCS as Wally Covington has been appointed to the judicial bench.

I support and endorse Jeanine Lawson for Brentsville District Supervisor.

In my opinion, Jeanine gets it.  She has children in school now and has seen the effects of school overcrowding and large class sizes firsthand.  She understands the effects unfettered development have on our already stressed school system.  She’s not anti-development; she recognizes that development will and should happen, but she supports smarter development and appears willing to question and vet staff’s claims.  She understands the financial burden our high property tax rates have on working families.  She attended meetings of the Gainesville / Brentsville District budget committee and assisted in digging into the county and school division’s budgets.

Don’t take my word for it – check out Jeanine’s web site and that of her opponent, Scott Jacobs.  Check out their campaign finance reports on and see who is funding their campaigns (Jeanie’s and Scott’s).

Do your research, and then come to the GOP nominating meeting on October 1.  I’ll be there, and I’ll be voting for Jeanine.

Kim Simons


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