After struggling for several years to find land for a new elementary school in Leesburg, school officials have asked an architect to draw up proposals for how a school might be squeezed onto the sites of two office buildings the system now owns in the town.
The school, scheduled to open next year, has been named Sycolin Creek Elementary. It is needed to ease crowding at Evergreen Mill Elementary and Cool Spring Elementary schools, said Sam Adamo, planning director for the Loudoun County school system.
But with available land in and around the town drying up and prices soaring, Adamo said finding a site has been difficult. Several possibilities have been examined, and School Board members talked publicly over the summer about potentially seizing land through eminent domain. Negotiations continue for two possible sites, Adamo said, but each would require approval from the county, which could take months. Schools officials would not identify those two sites.
In the meantime, with less than a year left until the school's scheduled opening, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III announced at the last School Board meeting Sept. 14 that Moseley Architects will look at the school administrative headquarters on North Street and the Douglass support facility on Plaza Street, which houses other offices. Moseley drew up the standard designs for elementary schools that have been built in the county.
Both Leesburg office buildings will be vacated when the school system's new $26.1 million administrative office building in Ashburn is completed in the spring. Hatrick said he wants to see whether children could be put on either Leesburg site when the adults move.
"What is it they say about the bird in hand?" Adamo said of the planning process.
Tom Sullivan, the system's construction director, said the architects will look at numerous options, including whether the existing buildings could be converted to schools or whether they could be torn down and replaced with the county's standard elementary school or with a new design.
Though both buildings have had past lives as schools, there could be challenges to restoring them to that purpose. The North Street building sits on 9.2 acres and the Douglass support facility on 8.6 acres. The district usually looks for 15 to 20 acres when building an elementary school, and much of that land is devoted to playing fields.
The North Street building, constructed in 1925, was last used as an elementary school in 1972. Discussions are also underway about whether the building is considered historic, limiting construction options, Sullivan said.
Community groups have asked the School Board to declare the buildings surplus, which could allow them to be used for other purposes, including as teen or senior centers.
With nothing decided, however, officials had to cancel parent meetings about possible attendance zones for Sycolin Creek.
The delay has been difficult for parents, said Evergreen Mill PTA President Maureen Newton, particularly the cancellation of boundary hearings, usually an emotional process. "The hard part is we know our school community is going to change -- it has to. There might be a neighborhood that won't be at the school anymore," she said. "You know with your common sense this needs to be done, and then it comes to be time and there's nothing to be done."
According to last year's planning documents, with no relief next school year Evergreen Mill will enroll 296 more students than it can hold, and Cool Spring will get 185 beyond its capacity.
Evergreen Principal Mary Morris said the school has been tight for several years. Staff members have converted a custodians' storage room into a classroom -- known affectionately as "the cave" -- and the teachers' lunchroom into another, she said. Even so, about 30 students are attending Catoctin Elementary as an overflow site.
With each passing month, officials acknowledge that their ability to get a school built in time for the next school year diminishes. Adamo said that without one, more students zoned for the two schools might have to be bused to other schools with available seats.
"We have talked about that," he said, "but right now, none of us are giving up on that last glimmer of hope."