The Prince William County Board of Supervisors is using the power of persuasion and its control of purse strings to try to defuse a controversy that has erupted in recent weeks over plans for an elementary school that is scheduled to be built in the mid-county area.
The school board is considering a staff recommendation to move the Mary G. Porter Traditional School from its current location in Woodbridge to a site at the intersection of Spriggs and Minnieville roads. That site, on land previously owned by the Ferlazzo family, had been planned for an elementary school for children who live in the mid-county area, scheduled to open in 2016.
The proposal sparked an outcry from area residents who say they have been counting on a new facility to alleviate overcrowding in their schools. School officials contend that overcrowding is much more severe in the Route 1 corridor, and that moving the Porter school from its current facility would free up classroom space for students in that area.
One of two traditional schools in the county, the Porter school is open to students in grades 1 through 8 who apply and are chosen through a lottery system. Students wear uniforms to school and are required to meet annual community service requirements as part of their enrollment. The traditional schools have high standards for academic performance and behavior. There is a heavy demand for admission to Porter, which has a waiting list of more than 700 students, according to school officials.
In a meeting with school officials April 7, several supervisors said they were unwilling to approve a capital budget for the school system before the school board announces its plans for the new school. The budget vote is scheduled for Tuesday. School officials have responded that they will not make a decision about the school until early next month.
On Thursday, the supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) to send a letter to the school board expressing a strong commitment to help find a site for another elementary school in eastern Prince William. Principi acknowledged the public opposition to plans to move the Porter school, and said that a new school would help alleviate school overcrowding in the eastern part of the county, which he called “a huge crisis.”
The proposal to move the Porter School to the Ferlazzo site ignited a firestorm in the mid-county area. Opponents of the proposal responded with campaign-style tactics, creating a “Save the Ferlazzo Elementary School” Facebook page and flocking to a series of community meetings wearing T-shirts, carrying signs and voicing their displeasure to school officials.
“If you move Porter, that’s just a Band-Aid on the situation,” Hope Hill Crossing homeowner Amanda Day said at a community meeting Monday with several school board members in attendance. “You’re moving the problem, and it’s not solving the problem.
“When you renege on an agreement like this, that really breaks our trust in the community,” she said.
Day said she and her husband had considered buying a home in Loudoun or Fairfax before settling on Hope Hill Crossing partly because of the plans to build a community school on the Ferlazzo property.
“We found out an elementary school was planned for that area to relieve overcrowding,” Day said in an interview. The couple moved into their home in June, she said.
Dave Beavers, supervisor of planning and financial services for the school system, said at the meeting Monday that “dramatic changes in enrollment projections” led staff members to recommend moving the Porter school.
“Ashland Elementary and surrounding schools in the Ferlazzo planning area have dramatically decreased from 2012 to 2014 in terms of our projections,” Beavers said. Enrollment projections in that area have decreased by 600 students, he said, while the projections indicated that school overcrowding in the Route 1 and Dale City areas would worsen.
Moving the Porter school from its current facility would provide immediate relief in the Route 1 area by making room for 672 students, Beavers said. Relocating Porter to a new, 924-student facility at the Ferlazzo site also would offer more students the opportunity to attend the traditional school, he said.
The public meetings also attracted a substantial number of residents who spoke in favor of the staff’s proposal, including many whose children attend Porter. Machelle Reid of Triangle called the proposal “a wonderful idea.”
“Overcrowding in the eastern corridor is a problem that isn’t going away, and moving Porter to the new Ferlazzo site would be a more immediate solution to relieve this issue and get those students into a school building that looks and feels like school,” Reid said at the meeting last week.
“It’s been referred to as a Band-Aid, but Band-Aids stop bleeding,” Reid said.
At a Board of County Supervisors meeting April 7, Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) proposed withholding construction funds for the site if the school board votes to move the Porter school there.
School board Vice Chairman Alyson A. Satterwhite (Gainesville) responded in an interview that the supervisors do not have the authority to withhold funds for the school.
“The last time I checked with our Virginia State Code, the Board of County Supervisors does not have a line item veto,” Satterwhite said.
“We do have a legal responsibility to provide a certain level of oversight to how taxpayer dollars are spent,” said Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who has indicated that he would be unable to vote for the schools’ capital budget without assurances that a community school would be built at the Ferlazzo site.
“My hope is that we can resolve this issue using the traditional channels,” Nohe said. “We’re going to make sure that anything we do is consistent with the law that governs the relationship between the two boards, but I think there are ways in which we can influence this.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.