If we are all screaming nobody is listening

I think most members of the School Board and members of the Colonial Forge community are spending today and the coming days reflecting on the process that got us to where we are and looking forward to where we may be going.

In my three years on the School Board we have now gone through (or as I write this still going through the second) contentious redistricting’s twice.  When I first ran for the School Board, folks that were then members of the School Board and members of the Board of Supervisors both warned that there would be a need to redistrict school boundaries in the coming years and redistricting is the most difficult job the School Board does.  In my naivety, I thought how difficult could it be.  Yes, I now understand the warnings I was given.

What I have learned through the two redistrictings, while they each used vastly different processes, there is no easy process and no easy way to go about them.   I certainly understand the strong relationship a student and families make with their schools.   The relationships are very apparent when it is suggested students be moved from one school to another.   Tempers flare and activism rises.

How did we get here?

Stafford County, while probably not unique, has many self-inflicted wounds that creates growth patterns and school attendance zones that don’t make a lot of sense.   Growth in Stafford County has been an issue for many, many years.  While growing up in Prince William County I traveled to Stafford County quite often in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.   I recall seeing cars proudly displaying “Don’t Fairfax, Stafford County” bumper stickers.  The stickers were certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come.

In the 1980’s and prior there were few planned communities in Stafford.  The county was still a majority rural county, and there were only two high schools in the county.  If you went to North Stafford you were a part of the newcomers, the “rich”kids, the "Northern Virginian’ers".  Stafford High School was still the home of the proud Stafford natives.   As the economy boomed in the 90’s so did housing markets.  Along came Brooke Point High School, Colonial Forge High School and Mountain View High school all to accommodate the new newcomers.  In south Stafford we still hear the terms “From-Heres” and “Come-Heres” from time to time.

Stafford County relied on proffers from the development community to acquire land for schools and to build schools.  In my opinion very little, or at best poor, planning, led to building schools where we could and where developers would proffer land.   Rather than stepping back and planning then for the future things were just built.  Hence, we now have neighborhoods on top of neighborhoods with poor road infrastructure and schools that end up with crazy looking attendance zones. 

While the economy was still booming and the high schools were being filled up with kids from newly built homes in Stafford County through the end of the 90’s and early 2000’s, plans were made to build High School #6.  At one point the county was doing so well there was a $5million surplus and the Board of Supervisors encouraged the School Board to identify and purchase land for High School #6.   The land known as “Clift Farm property” was identified for high school #6, plans were drawn up and the county was heading towards a path of building that high school to serve southeast Stafford County.   Then the bottom falls out.

The recession of the later 2000’s, hit the county and the housing market came to a near stop in the county.   The recession caused the School Board and county to shelve the plans for High School #6.  Focus did shift to renovations of existing schools.  Grafton Elementary, Stafford Elementary and Falmouth Elementary were are renovated.  Stafford High School was rebuilt with a new building.  Yes, the arguments of whether it was a good idea to rebuild SHS could be rehashed, but the fact of the matter is it was done.   In my opinion I think, had SHS not been rebuilt and simply renovated we would be essential in the same place we are now with regards to debt capacity, and have the same dilemmas on how to pay for high school #6.

So here we find ourselves with all high schools operating at high levels of capacity.  Some with more and some with less and a little room to accept more students.

Where are we going?

We need to make full use out of our school buildings.  I have often had a contentious relationship with members of the Board of Supervisors, when we don’t see eye to eye on schools, however, one thing I often say is the Board of Supervisors has made school facilities a priority.   Stafford County, for the most part, has very good school facilities.   Our goal is to equalize populations in our schools as much as possible.   That leads us to a need to redistrict and move some students from Colonial Forge, which is operating near 100% to North Stafford and Mountain View, both of which have some space for students.  

The current redistricting of Colonial Forge has recently been described as “rushed”, “emergency” or “urgent”.   From my early days on the School Board I was made aware of the capacity issues Colonial Forge High School had and is going to have.  I understood there would be need to redistrict the school in the coming years, and I certainly thought the community understood.  I have been surprised with the “rushed” characterization of the redistricting.   However, I understand that I am very close to the issues of the school division and maybe more aware of issues such as this.  As a School Board member I know it is a part of my duties to keep the community informed and that is certainly been something I have tried to really focus on during my tenure on the Board.   I know I don’t want to pop any surprises on parents in the Falmouth District.   While somethings are going to be unavoidable, my goal is to help get information to those that could be impacted by decisions we make on the School Board.

At any rate, there is a need to create some room at Colonial Forge.  We have been engaged in the process for a few months now and have heard from many parties on their thoughts and opinions of the issue.  Early in the process the School Board decided on a process that kept the decision in the hands of the School Board.  In past redistrictings committees were formed that were made up of community members and school administration to develop options for the School Board to consider.  We found that process didn’t work well because the feedback we received was that the volunteers for the committees represented only certain neighborhoods, and they fought hard to protect their neighborhoods.  This year we started with a community meeting in which members of the community were asked to come out and provide us with their ideas and thoughts of the redistricting.  We had a great turn out and great participation.  The information collected then informed the School Board on how to start creating various options to redistrict and achieve the goals.

For the last several weeks the School Board has held work sessions and public hearings to continue to analyze and receive information.    People have come out and spoken very passionately about why their neighborhood should not be moved.   One of the things I have heard from time to time is the School Board has a “secret” plan and will just do what they want to do anyway.  If there is a secret plan I sure wish I knew about it.  Rest assured there is no secret plan and there is no political motivator to implement any one certain plan.  

Overall I think the School Board has received a lot of information, certainly more than we have in past processes.   I would challenge anyone to say the decision is an easy one.  It is most certainly the most difficult we make as members of a School Baord

We have narrowed the options down to two options, well actually, in my opinion, three options.   The two options give us options on what APUs/neighborhoods to move and the third is to take no action.  

I am pleased we have narrowed the options down to two and I supported Ms. Healy’s motion to limit our ability to add additional options when we take the redistricting item up on our agenda next week.  That puts us in a position to select Options A or B or take no action.  At the moment I have not made up my mind on which option to vote in favor of.  I expect my fellow members, that represent those affected, to make motions and make arguments on why we should support one over another.

What does the future hold?

It has become clear the economy is back to near full strength.  The housing market in Stafford County is booming again.   High School #6 is back on the top of the priority list.  However, the county has a debt issue.  Through financial guidelines, the Board of Supervisors adopted, there is a limit on how much debt the county can take on.  There are projects to compete against a new high school, to include rebuilding or renovating Ferry Farm Elementary and Hartwood Elementary.   I hope the Board of Supervisors can find a strategy to increase debt capacity while maintaining credit ratings and not having and negative impact on tax bills.  

It’s going to take the voice of the community to help ensure we get high school #6 approved and built.  It has been great to see so many people energized and activated for the redistricting.  One of my key frustrations in public service is how the community can become so active for something like a redistricting, but once the issue is resolved, we never hear from the community again until the next issue of contention arises.  

If you do not want crowded classrooms, if you do not want to have to go through continuous redistrictings, please do not go away.  Stay active.  Stay aware.  We need the community to continue to have a strong voice in the school division.   The School Board with the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Benson is making significant transformations in our division.  While, in my opinion, all schools in Stafford County are great schools, we are working hard to continue to make significant improvements.  From teacher and employee compensation to curriculum improvement our drive is to ensure all of our schools are great and they all receive the recognition as great schools they deserve.

Please don’t put down the paper, or put away the keyboard because this particular issue goes your way and don’t put either away in frustration because things didn’t go your way.   Be active, be informed and be involved! 

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Showing 6 reactions

commented 2017-03-29 00:58:58 -0400 · Flag
Now that the decision has been made, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for all of your hard work in making sure the decisions regarding Forge redistricting was a fair one. I realize that this is the most difficult task you face and I do not envy you in having to make it. Thank you for your service in this capacity to our community
commented 2017-03-23 11:16:58 -0400 · Flag
I just want to take a moment to thank you for all of your hard work on during this contentious redistricting initiative, it is appreciated. I also appreciate your willingness to reach out to BTW in it’s earliest days to help distribute important information to all of Stafford County.
commented 2017-03-23 07:09:42 -0400 · Flag
I am anxiously awaiting information on plans to adequately accommodate the additional students at receiving schools. A few years ago, roughly 200 new students were added to Park Ridge Elementary and the net result, at least for om my family’s perspective was that our then 4th grader was in a class of 34…hardly a number commensurate with the image of excellence SCPS endeavors to portray. Now, again, another roughly 200 students are planned to be sent this way, this time to North Stafford. Emblematic of the short-sightness of the PRES move, the school STILL does not have a full time focus teacher. It is hoped that as we are asked, again, to absorb county growth, that it is met with investment deserving of the top public schools in the nation.
Scott Hirons, Stafford County School Board - Falmouth District posted about If we are all screaming nobody is listening on Scott Hirons, Stafford County School Board - Falmouth District's Facebook page 2017-03-22 23:20:34 -0400
My latest thoughts on redistricting: If we are all screaming nobody is listening
Scott Hirons, Stafford County School Board - Falmouth District posted about If we are all screaming nobody is listening on Scott Hirons, Stafford County School Board - Falmouth District's Facebook page 2017-03-22 23:20:34 -0400
My latest thoughts on redistricting: If we are all screaming nobody is listening
@scotthirons tweeted this page. 2017-03-22 23:20:29 -0400
My latest thoughts on redistricting: If we are all screaming nobody is listening http://www.scotthirons.com/if_we_are_all_screaming_nobody_is_listening?recruiter_id=8702

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