by Danielle Nadler
Aug. 2, 2011
It’ll be tight. But not impossible. That’s the message from the Loudoun County Public Schools’ planning department on whether the planned new Ashburn-area high school will be built in time to open to students in 2015-the deadline set by the school system to relieve the area’s over-populated high schools.
“If everything goes perfectly, yes, we’ll make it,” Director of Planning and Legislative Services Sam Adamo said. “You’ve got a pretty large construction project, and it’s got to get under way.”
For the past several months, the Board of Supervisors has led the search for a piece of land to build a high school, dubbed HS-8 in the Capital Improvements Program, to relieve the already overcrowded high schools in the Ashburn area. In May, supervisors announced they were pursuing the purchase of the 45-acre National Conference Center property for the future site of the high school over any other options that had come forward. County staff members have since worked on a contract for the property, which sits just north of Rt. 7 off Belmont Ridge Road.
The staff will continue to work through August while the Board of Supervisors is in recess, and Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) expects a contract will be ready for she and her colleagues to vote on when they return in September.
“I think we’ll be in good shape to vote in September,” Waters added. “Which would keep the project on schedule to open in 2015.”
A contract will make the supervisors’ decision to go with the NCC site official, and the school system will take the lead on the project from there. The proposed high school plan calls for a 265,000-square-foot building with room for 1,600 students.
Once the purchase is final, a portion of the property-a 724-space parking lot-must be leased back to NCC. This will buy the conference center time to build a parking garage before formally turning the lot to the county, Adamo said.
Once that is agreed upon, the property must under go a series of other legislative approvals before the school system can break ground. Plus, a bond referendum to secure $169.6 million in funding for four new schools-including HS-8-needs to pass Nov. 8.
“There are a lot of timing issues involved in this,” Adamo said, adding that construction must begin by fall of 2013 to meet the fall of 2015 completion deadline. “And the clock doesn’t really start ticking until there’s a ratified contract.”
School Board Chairman John Stevens (Potomac) agreed that the opening date of 2015 is still possible if the Board of Supervisors and the School Board face no complications between now and the start of construction-and few, if any, complications after the groundbreaking.
“Once we have land we’ll be ready to go,” he said. “Our school division knows how to build schools quickly. Our guys have done a phenomenal job of always opening schools on time even under a tight deadline.”
If the high school’s opening date is pushed back one year to 2016, area high schools such as Briar Woods, Stone Bridge, Broad Run and Tuscarora will operate well over capacity.
Stevens said he certainly wants to see the new high school opened in time, but how to best cope with crowded schools is something the school system needs to learn, whether by changing school hours, extending the school year or adding temporary trailers.
“We need to face this challenge as a district for everywhere from Ashburn down to South Riding,” he said. “If this school is delayed, we would have a couple of years to figure out how we are going to address that, and there are many tools in the tool box for that. But I really hope everyone can work together to get this open by 2015.”
The future high school in the Ashburn area has been an ongoing debate for at least two years. Community members both for and against the NCC site have packed public meetings to submit their input. Most recently, members of Loudoun Soccer have shared concerns for the loss of fields if the high school is built on the NCC site. Most of the fields on a 15-acre park next to the site will be replaced by fields to be used primarily by the high school, according to the project’s proposed plans.
“That’s definitely a concern that we’re aware of and we have different plans to try to make sure we have facilities available to the community,” Stevens said, adding that most all of the school system’s fields are used part-time for community recreation. “Just because it becomes a school field doesn’t mean the recreational use goes away.”
Calls and emails to Loudoun Soccer have not been returned.
Suzanne Kim, a Lansdowne resident whose son will most likely attend the new high school, said she is concerned about the traffic that will come with a new high school in her neighborhood.
“The Board of Supervisors has no way to control the large amount of traffic that has to come in to the Lansdowne neighborhood,” she said. “There are too many entities in one small area. You can’t have that much traffic.”
While some neighbors to the NCC site are opposed to the high school being built in their backyard, others are thrilled with the idea.
“There are a lot of reasons this is a great place for this school,” Jamie Semler, a mother of an elementary school-aged son and a 4-year-old daughter who will most likely attend the future high school, said. “Instead of using the space for an office building, we’d have people utilizing the space who are invested in the safety and care of our people and our community.”
Diane VanDyke, whose elementary school-aged children could one day walk to the future high school, said the county supervisors did their research on the NCC site and she trusts their decision.
“When I heard they had selected a site, I was thrilled because we desperately need HS-8,” VanDyke said. “It’s time they chose a site. Now, let’s focus on ways to make sure this school fits within our community and has a minimal impact on our neighbors.”