Stafford County voters will decide in a special election Aug. 18 whether the county should issue up to $30 million in general obligation bonds to repair five of its schools and build two new ones.

By Aug. 4, the voter registration deadline for the bond referendum, 19,880 of the county's estimated 53,000 residents had registered, 173 of them in the final two days. Registration is at an all-time high, according to county registrars. The school bond referendum is the only item on the ballot.

"It's wonderful to have people registering," said Rebecca Reid, who heads the county's Board of Supervisors, which recently passed a resolution in support of the referendum. "We too often find we end up with a minimum amount of citizens deciding the issues, so I'm happy to see people registering so they can voice their opinion."

So far, no organized citizens group has spoken in opposition to the referendum, as occurred in nearby Fauquier and Loudoun when those counties had similar school bond referendums this year.

The School Board is optimistic that the influx of voters is because county residents favor the referendum.

"First of all, it shows that education is an important issue and that people want to be able to vote on it," said Carolyn Taylor, who heads the School Board. "I would have to feel the large number of registrations is a positive indication for us that people are in favor of the bond issue."

Teachers and school employes have been registering in large numbers, as have new residents with school-age children, Taylor said.

"I have trouble understanding how someone could not vote in favor of this," she added. "But then, I'm prejudiced, I guess."

In recent years, Stafford County, which is south of Prince William and Fauquier counties and borders on Fredericksburg at its southern end, has experienced rapid growth, particularly in its northern part.

Because of the growth, some of the county's schools have become crowded. Several also are old -- Stafford Middle School was built in 1916 -- and in need of repairs.

The School Board decided in the spring to study the county's educational needs for the next five years. The board asked the state Department of Education to assess Stafford's educational needs and hired an architectural and engineering company to study the county's school facilities and what was needed to bring them up to modern standards.

The School Board combined the results of the two studies into a $30 million capital improvement plan "Even though we've not heard of any organized opposition to the plan, that doesn't mean everyone will vote for it. We want to make sure that people are properly informed before they cast their vote."

-- Marilyn Butters

that was presented to the Board of Supervisors in June. The supervisors decided issuing bonds would be the best method of financing the plan, but, because of its size, county voters would have to make the final decision whether to go ahead with the plan.

The School Board's plan asks for two elementary schools to be built, one in the Rockhill District, the other at an undetermined site, and repairs to be made on five of the county's 13 schools: Drew, Gayle and Stafford middle schools and Ferry Farm and Hartwood elementary schools. Besides renovation, repairs include allowing for access for the handicapped and installing air conditioning in the schools.

The cost of repairs varies from $2.3 million to $5.8 million; the two elementary schools will cost $5.7 million and $6.4 million to build, including inflation and purchase of land.

Several parts of Stafford have cluster zoning, which allows developers to build on smaller lots than under regular zoning, but requires them to donate land to the county for such things as recreation areas and schools. Some county officials are optimistic that they can find a suitable site for an elementary school in such an area, and therefore not have to buy land.

From the time the referendum was proposed, the Stafford County School Board has been hard at work informing residents of its plan. Parents with children in the county's schools have been mailed pamphlets detailing the plan and voting information. The School Board has also raised more than $6,000 for advertising from county Parent Teacher Organizations and other organizations in favor of the plan.

"In the last 10 days before the election, we plan to have something in the local paper and on the radio every day," said Marilyn Butters, bond referendum coordinator. "Even though we've not heard of any organized opposition to the plan, that doesn't mean everyone will vote for it. We want to make sure that people are properly informed before they cast their vote."

School Board officials said they have not specifically discussed a course of action they would take if the referendum fails to pass. They said it would probably take a year to come up with another plan.

In the meantime, some students would be moved to less-crowded schools in the southern part of the county, some overflow classrooms would have to be purchased and several teachers would have to work overtime or do substitute teaching, Taylor said.

Stafford County's polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Each of the county's six election districts has two voter precincts. In Falmouth, they are Falmouth Elementary School for Falmouth Precinct and Grafton Village Elementary School for Grafton Precinct. In Hartwood District, they are Hartwood Elementary School for Hartwood Precinct and Enon Community Center for Simpson Precinct.

In the George Washington District, they are Ferry Farm Elementary School for Chatham Precinct and White Oak Firehouse for White Oak Precinct. In Aquia District, they are Brooke Firehouse for Brooke Precinct and Stafford Middle School for Courthouse Precinct. In Griffis-Widewater District, they are Anne E. Moncure Elementary School for Griffis Precinct and Widewater Firehouse for Widewater Precinct, and in Rock Hill District, they are North Stafford High School for Garrisonville Precinct and Garrisonville Elementary School for Roseville Precinct. For more information, call the registrar's office at 659-8777.