Citing declining enrollment, Prince William Co. slated to delay new high school opening

The Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center serves as the administrative office facility for Prince William County Schools. (Courtesy Prince William County Public Schools)

Citing declining enrollment trends, public school leaders in Prince William County, Virginia, are slated to delay the opening of the division’s 14th high school.

The new school, which is planned to be built in the Lake Ridge neighborhood, had already been delayed one year while the county changed the building model it planned to use for the construction. That decision, Chief Operating Officer Vernon Bock said, was driven by the desire “to bring the prototype to a more modern facility to better meet the educational needs of today.”

But now, the school district is expected to delay the opening another two years, to 2029, because of migration patterns and declining birthrates that are having an impact on enrollment. It will be built for about 1,400 or 1,500 students, Bock said — down from the more than 2,500 students it was originally expecting to have on campus.

The change in planning came after enrollment projections at the start of this year fell outside the standard 1% margin of error for the first time in several years, Bock said. That meant enrollment was significantly lower than what the school division projected.

“Pausing that two years also gives us an opportunity to make sure our enrollment projections are actually playing out the way we anticipate, and all the experts anticipate,” Bock said. “We really don’t have a lot of data post-pandemic to hang our hats on.”

University of Virginia researchers are projecting Northern Virginia to experience its first population decline since 1970. Matthew Cartlidge, Prince William County Public Schools supervisor of planning, said that’s partly because people are moving to Stafford and Fauquier counties, closer to Richmond, or in some cases to Georgia or the Carolinas.

“Some of the reasons for that include relatively cheaper cost of living, and then additionally, during the pandemic and post-pandemic, there was a heightened embracement of telework, which allowed more people to be more footloose, and not as bound to that commuter shed for the D.C. Metro,” Cartlidge said.

Birthrates are also declining in Prince William County, as they are in areas across the country.

“When you have domestic net out-migration, declining birthrates and limited or more limited residential development, all of those factors are contributing to population at the K-12 level starting to perhaps stabilize, if not decline, in the next five years as the data in our models are suggesting,” Cartlidge said.

The University of Virginia research is projecting a K-12 decrease of 2,300 students over the next five years. The county is projecting a decrease of about 1,950, Cartlidge said.

The new high school’s design could change should enrollment trends change, Bock said, but it’s also being constructed “so that we can add on to the building.”

Delaying the project has freed up funding in the school district’s Capital Improvement Plan. That funding will be used to improve school facilities that have been highlighted as requiring upgrades, Bock said.

If enrollment goes up and the new high school has to be bigger, Bock said the county “would have to take a look at our projects in the CIP and potentially reprioritize what’s in there.”

Currently, the division’s purchasing department is looking for an architect who would design the new school. Once the architect has been selected, the county would start the community engagement process.

Bock said the school district is reviewing the statuses of some of the schools that would be affected once the new high school is built, but, “We’re not seeing an alarming trend of overcrowded schools in this area.”

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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