Prince William County schools given authority over trailers

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

A dispute over which governing body has control over the placement of trailers at Prince William County schools came to a close Tuesday after a vote by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

The board voted 6 to 1 for a comprehensive plan amendment that effectively gives the school system control over where and when it can add trailers that serve as makeshift classrooms on school property. It also allows the school system to add parking and athletic field lighting without going through a public facility review.

Control over school trailers has been an issue for years and prompted a lawsuit in 2007. At the time, the School Board was often required to submit plans that modify school sites to the Planning Commission for approval. But after the commission rejected trailers at seven elementary schools and then at Brentsville District High School, the School Board filed a lawsuit in Prince William County Circuit Court, asking for more independence and less oversight managing the school system.

"We believed that the Planning Commission was not entitled to take the action it was taking at the time, but with this comp plan amendment, we should be able to go forward and not have an issue," said School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large), noting that residents will still be welcome to comment on school site modifications. "We believe the School Board is the organization that is best suited to make decisions on the behalf of the children of the county."

Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) cast the dissenting vote Tuesday; Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) was absent.

"There were some good things in [the amendment], but the fact it took away public hearings and public analysis was a bother to me," Covington said. "I think the public should be engaged in the process, and they are more engaged at planning meetings" than at School Board meetings.

Prince William Assistant County Attorney Curt Spear said the lawsuit had stalled while county officials waited for a September 2008 Virginia Supreme Court ruling on a similar case in Loudoun County. In that case, Loudoun was butting heads with the Town of Purcellville over which entity had the power to review the location of a new high school. The county won, but the case proved not to be a good example for the Prince William battle. The lawsuit has continued to sit idle while members of both parties negotiated possible solutions.

Over the years, trailers have become a necessity as the student population has grown and funding to build or renovate schools has shrunk, schools officials said. Johns said trailers are the one tool the school system has to add classroom space quickly.

This year, for instance, the system got about 2,000 more students than it expected, bringing enrollment to almost 77,000, school officials said, noting that there are 224 trailers on school grounds.

Covington said that he understands the school system needs flexibility to move trailers around but that the amendment essentially makes a special exception for schools and places no limit on the number of portable classrooms allowed on a school site. The Planning Commission had echoed those concerns when it voted to reject the amendment at its meeting.

"We put the citizens and other interested parties through these public reviews, so it's kind of troubling to me a governmental body would choose to remove itself from a process it subjects its citizens to," said Planning Commissioner Ronald K. Burgess (Brentsville). "I think this was a very poor decision by the board."

Although the School Board will have to formally address the lawsuit at an upcoming meeting, Johns said, supervisors' decision essentially makes it moot.

"I'm pleased the supervisors took this vote," Johns said. "This is a sign of cooperation between the School Board and supervisors. It's a sign we really are all on the same page when it comes to doing what's in the best interest of the students."

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