Correction to This Article
The article about recent enrollment growth in Prince William County schools misstated a description by the School Board chairman, Milton C. Johns, of the system's budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July. He said that the shortfall is $45 million, not $45,000.

Prince William turns corner with boom in population and drop in housing prices

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

While Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School was under construction in 2007, the newly appointed principal, Deraine Simpson, worried as she drove to the Dale City campus past a sea of FOR SALE signs in foreclosure-wracked subdivisions.

"I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, this beautiful new school, and everyone is leaving,' " Simpson said. "Fortunately, those signs came down quickly."

Less than three years later, Fitzgerald Elementary has exceeded its 850-student capacity, and students are enrolling nearly every week. Simpson is adding kindergarten and first-grade classes next year. And Prince William school officials are considering portable classrooms and new attendance boundaries for the hilly neighborhoods east of Interstate 95.

The county's newest elementary school is feeling the impact of a population boom that is reenergizing neighborhoods abandoned by distressed homeowners. A wave of young families is breathing life into cul-de-sacs and suburban courts that were among the region's hardest hit by the real estate collapse.

New buyers are drawn to Prince William for its age-old allure: affordable housing. Because of depressed prices, along with lower interest rates and a tax credit for first-time homebuyers, many are getting better deals than ever.

Parents started pouring into the office at Fitzgerald almost as soon as it opened in fall 2008 to register their children, some bringing closing documents showing townhouse prices as low as $179,000. The victors of the crash included custodians and taxi drivers, security guards and single parents. They rented and waited until they could afford a 2,200-square-feet home with 2 1/2 baths and a back yard and near a good school.

Investors also swooped in after the crash, prompting bidding wars in many places. Some families were priced out; others secured deals on homes abandoned through foreclosure or short sales, as well as on brand-new homes at discount prices.

Prince William, the state's second-largest school system, had planned for an additional 1,100 students this year after growth slowed last year; it ended up with 3,000, bumping enrollment to nearly 77,000. The 4 percent increase was on par with growth rates during the years before the crash, when assessments and tax revenue climbed.

The enrollment surge took planners by surprise and stretched resources during the toughest budget cycle since the Great Depression.

"These were students we had not budgeted for," said School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large). With an average per-pupil cost of $10,700, accounting for the extra enrollment-related costs made up a large part of the school district's $45 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July, he said.

But as abandoned homes are bought, the market is beginning to stabilize, and property values are beginning to rise, said Jason Grant, a spokesman for Prince William. That's good for the county's overall health.

Road to recovery

A few hundred feet away from Fitzgerald, buyers invested in homes under construction near Bronco Way and Broker Lane in 2004 and 2005, when the market was defined by frenzied development and freewheeling lending practices.

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