First, the form letter:
Dear Vice Chair Stevens,
Thank you for working to ensure that Loudoun County Public Schools remain among the best in the nation.
I am concerned that the current system for new school site selection is flawed, leading to overpriced, poorly sited locations that don't meet the goals of the Comprehensive Plan for neighborhood schools. It doesn't make sense for Loudoun taxpayers to continue footing an unnecessarily high bill for these new schools, and for our kids to keep suffering boundary changes. With so many new schools needing to be built, I urge you to closely examine the process and find ways to reform the process.
And now my response:
Thank you for your letter of concern regarding the school site selection process. Together with my colleagues it is my responsibility to ensure that LCPS conducts all of its operations with utmost efficiency while ensuring the best education possible for the children of Loudoun County given the resources available. The school site selection process is an important part of that responsibility and occupies a considerable amount of the time that we spend representing our community and neighbors.
The best opportunities for improvement in the land acquisition process involve improved cooperation with the Board of Supervisors. According to a recent year-long efficiency review of LCPS conducted by outside experts, the single largest opportunity for savings involves changes to the County's process for approving school properties. We are working diligently with our counterparts on that board to implement those changes.
Many school sites in the past have been proffered by developers. As fewer planned developments are approved, purchase of land becomes more frequent. The site selection process operates inside a staggeringly complex arena of government regulations (Federal, State and Local), zoning considerations, fiscal constraints and the free market. Few available parcels are large enough, fewer still have willing sellers and only a small subset of these meet the geological, topographical, location, and transportation requirements to support a school for the next 75 years.
To navigate these intricate and often conflicting obstacles LCPS has hired a staff of truly exceptional planning professionals who operate under the guidance of the School Board and in close cooperation with the Loudoun County Government planning staff. This team has managed the astonishing growth that Loudoun has experienced over the past 15 years without increasing class sizes by consistently delivering new schools on time, under budget, with the highest quality and lower cost than any school district in the state of Virginia. (As a bonus each school is built with even more energy efficiency than the ones before it!)
As a parent subject to the boundary process that accompanies the opening of a new school, I know it is often very difficult for families, and so even though the current LCPS practices have done well over time it is subject to continuous review and adjustment by the School Board.
It would be wonderful if we could name our own price for a parcel of land once identified, and I know that we would be fair to the landowners in doing so. Unfortunately we must negotiate for a mutually agreeable price. These negotiations are based on a number of factors, chief among them are professional appraisals provided by the most experienced appraisers in the area and under contract to LCPS. This is an important independent check on our internal processes and verification of the true market value of a property. At the Board's direction LCPS has terminated negotiations or initiated condemnation proceedings with a number of landowners just in my short time as a member because their asking price was above and beyond the appraised value of the land.
There is a tremendous amount of conflicting information regarding two recently contracted properties, commonly referred to as the Lenah and Rouse parcels. I have done my best to contribute unvarnished information about these to all of my neighbors in Loudoun through my blog, Our Loudoun Schools (at www.LoudounSchools.org), because this is your government and its dealings and the decisions of your representatives should be transparent to you. If there is additional information that I can share, particular questions that I can answer or specific opportunities for improvement that you can provide then I hope you will call or write to me again.
Until I hear from you again or we see each other in person, I again thank you for taking the time to write and for your interest and concern.
Tomorrow I'll provide links where you can find original data on the Lenah property.