Like most eighth graders at Prince William County's Graham Park Middle School, Wendy Moraski was looking forward to the big time -- moving up to nearby Potomac High School next year.
If some county school officials have their way, though, Wendy won't make the two-mile bus trip from her Montclair home to Potomac High next fall. Instead, she is tentatively scheduled to get up at 5 a.m., hop a bus with 21 other students and take an 18-mile ride to Osbourn Park Senior High School in Manassas. And 13-year-old Moraski -- along with her parents and about 300 residents who recently attended a meeting to protest the Potomac busing plan -- don't like it one bit.
"It will be just like moving and having to start making friends all over again," Wendy said. "I'm not looking forward to it at all."
Busing -- and the controversy that so often surrounds it -- has come to Prince William County.
But this is not the sort of busing that brings racial balance to schools, since schools in the mostly white county are already racially mixed. This busing is aimed at balancing the numerical enrollments in two of the county's six high schools -- one overcrowded, the other hundreds of students short of capacity -- because population growth in Prince William has not followed the projections of county education planners.
The proposal to bus Moraski and other students living in the Montclair section of the county from crowded Potomac High to Osbourn Park, has stirred outrage among Montclair residents, rekindled decades-old urban-rural animosities in the county and illustrated the difficulty of planning to accommodate rapid population growth.
"We fought hard for our high school and we're not going to turn around and bus our children an hour away to another one," said Montclair community spokeswoman Maureen Caddigan, whose youngest child now attends Potomac. "This is totally unfair. It is a political move against the people of Montclair."
School officials, however, say busing is necessary to ease overcrowding in four-year-old Potomac High, which serves parts of Woodbridge, Dumfries and the fast-growing subdivisions of Montclair. The county School Board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Dec. 15 meeting.
The proposal would affect only future Potomac students, said school spokeswoman Kristy Larson. She said 22 students would be bused next year. In five years, 150 students would be bused, she said.
A school staff report recommended busing students from the newer, western edge of Montclair, which about 18 miles from Osbourn Park, a school 700 students below its 2,300-student capacity. Potomac, with 1,838 students, is well above its capacity of 1,574 students, and enrollment is expected to increase by 200 in five years as Montclair and eastern Prince William continue to grow.
"Basically, a lot of our schools are not where a lot of our people are," said a Prince William school official. "We are doing our best to straighten out boundries but there are bound to be some conflicts."
Not only must county officials grapple with planning for growth, but they say they encounter oft-expressed hostility between the growing eastern half of the county, where Potomac is located, and the county's older and more rural western half, where Osbourn is.
Though the Woodbridge and Manassas areas have an almost identical socioeconomic makeup and many workers in both areas commute to Washington, Larson said people in eastern Prince William are perceived as more cosmopolitan than western county residents.
"It's a very tangible feeling in the county," she said.
"I really don't want to send my daughter into a hostile environment," said Betty Moraski, who moved with her husband to Montclair three years ago after studying the county's schools. "My major objection to busing is that our daughter will be separated from her friends at a crucial time in her life. She wants to stay with her friends, where she is comfortable."
Moraski is hardly alone in her view in Montclair, where citizens successfully petitioned in 1977 for the bonds to build the $14 million Potomac High School. "The widespread support shows we are a tight community and we will stick together," said resident Betty Hyssong, who has gathered 1,300 signatures on petitions opposing the busing plan.
"Families can also stay together," said Larson, disputing charges that some families will end up with a child at Potomac and another at Osbourn Park. "But they have to be together at Osbourn. A Potomac student can elect to be bused to Osbourn to be with a brother or sister. There are students in the far western, rural corner of Prince William that are bused 20 miles to school. This is nothing personal against the people of Montclair."
But some Montclair residents don't see it that way.
A 21-member committee of parents appointed by the School Board to make alternative recommendations to the busing proposal recommended that an addition to Potomac be built. A minority report recommended that students be bused to another county high school, Gar-Field, which is six miles closer than Osbourn Park but 400 students above its 2,200 capacity.
"I reject the proposal of an addition outright," said School Board Chairman Gerard P. Cleary. "We just don't have the funds for that sort of thing."
"They've listened to other communities that wanted to stay together in their community schools," said Caddigan, "but they don't seem to want to listen to us."
Many Montclair parents and some School Board members contend Potomac is not so crowded that students must be bused. "My first choice would be to stick with the status quo," said board member Jayne Speck, who represents Montclair and Dumfries.
"I know the limit is supposed to be 1,500, but the school seems to have absorbed the extra students . . . . What we can't forget is that we're talking about real students with feelings and friends. This is an awful step to take against these students when it really isn't necessary."