Tomorrow morning at 10AM, the Board of Supervisors will take up the question of whether to approve a special exception for a plot of land south of Rt. 50, and allow a High School and a Middle School to be built there to open in 2010 and 2011, respectively. LCPS already has the money set aside to purchase the site. The price to be paid is 20% under budget. The cost of the work preparing the site for this final approval runs into the millions. The Supervisor's own professional staff has recommended approval. LCPS has conformed with every demand to ensure the site is in compliance. LCPS is already bussing Middle School students out of the area this year and soon the High Schools will overflow. Without the special exception, a school will not be permitted on the site. As of this morning the outlook for the vote doesn't look good.
Our County grows and brings in thousands of new students every year, enough to fill 3-4 new schools every year. This Board of Supervisors is in danger of going a full year without approving a single new school site. The previous Board only budgeted a single site in its final year. This is a form of borrowing against the future, putting off until tomorrow what you should have done today, and making tomorrow's fiscal mountain twice as tall.
At the heart of the matter is a major cultural difference between the two Boards.
The two Boards have different audiences, different focuses. The School Board's mission is to run efficient and effective schools. From our perspective anything that strengthens local public education is a good investment, and past investment is largely responsible for our present success as a great community. The Supervisors are rightly concerned not just with schools but with economic development, infrastructure, social services, public safety and all manner of other concerns. The child-heavy demographics of our community demand school funding at a level that leaves them with little left over to handle all of those other needs.
At a deeper level though, the School Board relies heavily on the advice of its professional staff, which is sensible but too often a crutch. Because of my own confidence in the LCPS staff's judgement it can be too easy to turn my attention to other important things, leaving me in a weak position when it comes to advocating my Board's decisions to the Supervisors and the public. As a group, the Supervisors spend much more time personally digging into the details of a major decision such as this one. This is an admirable work ethic, but comes with the unfortunate side effect of dismissing the important professional advice of their own staff. This is not a trivial point. Past Boards ignoring county staff's advice has resulted in expensive lawsuits such as the one that currently embroils Purcellville over Woodgrove High School.
The School Board can also be isolated by the groups it hears from, which are primarily Parent-Teacher groups. The land-use advocacy groups that fund Supervisors' campaigns and bend their ears perenially ignore the county's largest developer, the School Board. If those groups seek to influence LCPS's land purchasing options, they should start earlier in the process and become familiar with a different group of nine. Their input a year or two ago could have helped our community to avoid the costly head-butting that we are witnessing now.
Unfortunately the Supervisors' role of putting School needs into a broader perspective can veer into a nay-saying obstructionism. A 'no' vote by the Supervisors now is just that, a role gone awry, supported by special interests and personal preferences and not professional counsel and effective government processes.