With so much recent community discussion about overcrowded classrooms and the need for land to build new schools, especially on the eastern end of the county where available land is limited, we thought it would be a good time to explain the process for acquiring new property.
To contend with past challenges in school funding, Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) increased class-sizes in order to maintain parent-desired programs and services. The PWCS administration and School Board have begun the expensive work of lowering class-size in targeted grade levels. However, in a school division the size and student population growth rate of PWCS, it would take approximately $15 million to lower class-sizes by one student per class across all grade levels in staffing costs alone, and while that would help teachers with classroom management, it would only have a limited impact on student learning.
To alleviate all overcrowding and the use of trailers, PWCS would need to have the funding to purchase land to build the necessary classroom space and hire the additional teachers needed to lower class-sizes significantly enough to improve academic results.
So what is the process to acquire land to build new schools and the responsibilities of both the School Board and the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS)?
- School Division construction and planning staff review all residential development plans and maintain databases containing the number of anticipated housing units and the stage of construction. This information is used in making enrollment projections. The projected enrollments, combined with location information, are used to identify geographic areas where schools are needed.
- The entire geographic area is reviewed for potential sites, including PWCS-owned property, “proffered” sites, or property to purchase. Proffered sites are deeded to the BOCS and the School Division must request transfer of the site from the BOCS. Sites are evaluated based on parcel size, road access, topography, soil type, water and sewer availability, Resource Protection Area and wetland limitations, availability of the site, and any other factors deemed pertinent to each site.
- If a site has potential, a civil engineer provides a draft layout drawing of the site identifying the school and field placements. If the site seems feasible, then staff proceeds toward acquisition. The School Board authorizes staff to negotiate a contract. Contracts are contingent on an approved Public Facility Review (PFR) by the county’s Planning Commission.
- All potential sites (whether PWCS-owned or potential purchase), require a PFR to determine if the location, character, and extent of the proposed public facility is consistent with Prince William County’s Comprehensive Plan as determined by the Prince William County Planning Commission and the BOCS. The Planning Commission votes to find the site consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. This finding is final unless the BOCS chooses to reconsider the matter in the next 30 days. If the School Division moves forward toward finalizing acquisition at this point, it does so at the risk of the BOCS reconsidering this decision and possibly rejecting the construction project.
- With no further action from the BOCS, the land acquisition can then move forward.
Both the School Board and the BOCS have roles and responsibilities in the land acquisition process to ultimately alleviate school overcrowding and the use of trailers. But in the end, it is the School Board that determines what schools get built and how to use the funds needed to construct and operate them.