Members of the Prince William School Board say more housing won’t help the ongoing struggle to keep up with population growth.
Noting an ongoing struggle to keep up with the local population growth, the Prince William School Board has taken the unusual step of voicing its opposition to three new housing developments they say will likely exacerbate school overcrowding.
During its meeting Wednesday, the first of the new school year, board members discussed pending rezoning applications that could add about 1,000 new single-family and town homes to neighborhoods in Brentsville, Gainesville and the Bull Run area of Manassas. Each proposal, school officials said, would add students to schools that are already near or overcapacity.
According to school staff calculations, the new households could add a total of 585 elementary, middle and high school students to Nokesville, Sinclair and West Gate elementary schools; Marsteller, Bull Run and Stonewall middle schools and Patriot and Brentsville high schools.
Among the list, Sinclair and Westgate elementary schools and Marsteller Middle School are the most overcrowded. Together, the schools have 29 portable trailers parked outside their buildings to accommodate existing students, according to school district records.
School Board member Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) said the new developments are proposed in areas where new schools or additions have already been built to accommodate existing student growth.
“I’m just very concerned about the impact this will have…,” she said. “It’s just in these particular locations, with the school populations we have, it’s just not a good fit for Prince William County schools.”
Although the School Board cannot block rezoning applications that pave the way for new houses, its input is considered by the county Planning Commission and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors, which has final approval of rezoning applications.
Asked for comment Thursday, Planning Commissioner Fran Arnold, who represents the Gainesville Magisterial District, declined to discuss the specific applications but said she considers the impacts on schools when weighing any rezoning case.
“I have five children … and three grandchildren,” she said. “So, I absolutely think it’s paramount that everyone consider the impact [of crowding] on the learning environment.”
School Board member Gil Trenum (Brentsville) said the discussion was also an opportunity to reiterate the School Board’s call for the Board of Supervisors to reexamine the amount of money or “proffers” housing developers are asked to pay fund new schools.
“Loudoun County’s proffers are about three times what ours are,” Trenum said. “If the Board of County Supervisors would re-look at these proffer levels, it would help us keep up with the need for new schools.”
School Board Chairman Milt Johns (At Large) said the point was not to oppose all new development but rather to be more realistic about how it affects communities.
“We sit in traffic, out children go to overcrowded schools, we have to build more churches, we have to stand in long lines at the grocery stores,” he said, noting that all county residents pay a price when new housing developments are built. “Our classes are overcrowded, and I think it’s appropriate to revisit these proffers.”
In May, the School Board unanimously passed a resolution asking the Prince William Board of Supervisors to reexamine proffer levels but so far has received no response, Trenum said.
Prince William’s “Policy Guide for Monetary Contributions” sets the proffer amount for single-family homes at $37,719. Of that amount, county schools are slated to receive $14,462 every time a building permit is pulled on a new home.
In Loudoun County, developers are asked to pay more than $51,000 for every home built – more than $34,000 of which is slated just for schools, according to figures provided by Prince William County Schools staff.
Prince William County proffers are lower even than those requested by Fauquier, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties, where developers are asked to pay their school systems between $18,000 and $21,000 for each new single-family home.
But Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart said Thursday “it’s hard to make an argument that proffers should be increased,” given that the proffer system has been challenged in the state General Assembly in recent years.
“Right now, you have the housing industry complaining to the General Assembly that proffer levels are too high,” Stewart said. “If we lost the ability to assess cash proffers, the county would really be in a pickle.”
Still, Stewart noted that the Board of Supervisors always considers the impact on schools whenever it mulls a rezoning request.
“The first thing we look at is to see if the developer can offer a school site,” he said, noting that land donations, often worth millions, are more valuable than the amount the county collects piecemeal in proffers, which are paid when developers obtain individual home-occupancy permits – long after the need for new schools is realized.
“It’s not just the cash contributions,” Stewart said. “We’re also often able to obtain the school sites themselves at no cost.”