Friday, May 25, 2007

School Board Lawsuit - It's not just about the trailers

I dealt with the School Board's lawsuit against the county in this week's column in the Potomac News, titled "It's not just about the Trailers". I've recently learned that, being a hobbyist and not a serious journalist, I managed to sign away my rights to online publication of my own work, so for now I can just post excerpts and my other thoughts.

As you might know, the School board is trying to put 7 new trailers with the 6 existing trailers at Brentsville High School. But the planning commission, citing serious deficiencies in the school infrastructure including a lack of adequate toilet facilities, rejected their request. That prompted a lawsuit:

According to the Potomac News, this has prompted the County School Board to file a lawsuit against the county, supposedly to "clarify the role of the planning commission" in reviewing School Board requests.

I know it sounds silly. Lawsuits are used to get our way, not to "clarify" things. But the School Board claims its action is "not intended to be confrontational," and "is not meant to be hostile." Instead, it's an expression of a "need to clarify things," and to reach a "little bit of better understanding."

I still laugh about that, and they repeated those quotes in a new article today. Nobody files a lawsuit to "make nice", sorry.

I complained about how much money we were going to waste on this stupid lawsuit. But I also pointed out that, contrary to what some might think (because it's how it's written in the paper) the lawsuit isn't about getting the trailers, it is actually seeking a court ruling that the Planning Commission has no right to review the trailers:

The lawsuit is not just about the trailers. The goal is to remove the planning commission and Board of Supervisors from the review process. The School Board is, in effect, suing us (through our government) to force us to accept its control over school property.

I also point out the lawsuit is unnecessary, as the board had an appeal process to the Board of County Supervisors, which they also chose to use. There will be a hearing June 5th. But the School Board is trying to circumvent that hearing with the lawsuit.

Next, I addressed the editorial board siding with the School Board, and specifically their claim that we should just TRUST government entitities to do what is right:

On Tuesday, this paper's editors sided with the School Board, saying in part that the members "have made themselves expert in what the county's schools need. If they say they need trailers, they should be trusted." The editors are wrong. We should not trust the School Board to do, or know, what is best.

Our government meets in public because we don't trust our representatives to always do what is best unsupervised. We hold public hearings because we don't trust them to always know what we want. We have review boards and commissions because we don't trust a handful of people to always make the right decisions. We have an appeal process because we don't trust the bureaucracy to always get things right.

Then I got into the actual problems with the School Board's proposed trailers:

The School Board proposal failed to address the capacity of the school's support structure.

For example, with the trailers, the school would have about 800 females sharing 15 bathroom stalls -- that's 53 people per stall. That's about 9 girls per stall per break, or 30 seconds per girl, if they only use the bathrooms once a day.

I also pointed out that other parts of the building are also undersized. My point is that you can't say you have reduced overcapacity to "114%" just by fixing the class size problem. Other parts of the school (bathrooms, cafeteria, office space) are still 42% overcrowded. The School Board did half the job, when they should have lowered the number of students.

My point is, given how badly the School Board did on this proposal, it should be clear that they need MORE, not LESS, oversight:

Fortunately, the planning commission was there to catch their errors, to think about the items they forgot.

This shows why we need the planning commission and the Board of County Supervisors involved in this process. The School Board has shown itself incapable of comprehending and correctly evaluating school space planning. The additional review protects our children from its mistakes.

My penultimate paragraph sums things up:

The School Board allowed a school to get 42 percent over capacity. It adopted a faulty plan for trailers without addressing infrastructure needs. Now, rather than fixing the problems cited by the commission and presenting a better plan to the supervisors, Board members want to force an unworkable plan through the courts and to remove from the process the very people that caught their mistakes this time.

I urge the school board to DROP the lawsuit, and instead to work with the Planning Commission and the Board of County Supervisors to really fix this mess at Brentsville.

Then we can move forward, and the School Board should take this review process seriously. They should do a better job of evaluating facilities, and in planning alternatives. They should get the planning commission involved earlier so we aren't time-pressed like we are now.

1 comment:

Mary said...

I agree with Charles. This issue goes far beyond trailers. It is about accountability and trust. And sorry, Potomac News, you can't have one without the other. Poor planning in not providing adequate infrastructure and facilities to support the addition of trailers shows lack of accountability.

Further, the School Board members are not planning experts. The Planning Commission, on the other hand goes through extensive training. So what clarification does the School Board seek??? - that they can make these decisions for themselves with regard to school facilities? Well, I hope that never happens. Some of my reasons below:

I recall that the School Board approved a school off of a dirt road right off of Signal Hill Road some years ago. I was on the Board of Supervisors at the time. We were consequently forced to approve and pay for road improvements to support that new school - money which could have been spent on other pre-existing and priority transportation improvements. I remember the discussion and the admonition to the School Board that we would not be so conciliatory in the future and that they needed to plan better.

More recently, I recall the School Board attempt to buy the Occoquan Forest Sanitary District land from the Service Authority. When a telecommunications tower was approved for this land, the Service Authority promised that the remainder of the 50 or so acres would be kept as open space. This was also land that the citizens of Occoquan Forest paid for through their Sanitary District fees.

Fortunately, the Planning Commission was paying attention and denied the Public Facilities Review. It wasn't just a matter of a broken promise but it would also have created another Spriggs Road situation where we would have had to widen and remove curves from Davis Ford Road to make it safe to accommodate the 90% of that school enrollment which would be bused into the school. Just a poor choice for a school. I worked with the Davis Ford corridor citizens to defeat that proposal. Had they not become so vocal in opposition, the school would have been approved as the School Board asked to have the Board of Supervisors rehear the Public Facilities Review. My successor on the Board had even told citizens that if they didn't accept the school, they would get houses on the site. Not true as this was public land and not in the Comp Plan for houses. So good thing the citizens were paying attention and good thing the process was open and allowed for their involvement. And Supervisor Nohe was forced to acquiesce for the sake of holding onto his seat.

So if the School Board is looking to short circuit the protections that open government and best planning practices provide us, then shame on them.

I'm assuming that they weren't happy about the outcome with the Davis Ford Road site and want to prevent such from happening again. Heaven help us. They should abandon this ill-conceived lawsuit and submit to the proper scrutiny by the citizens and Planning Commission. That would demonstrate trustworthiness and a commitment to accountability and good planning to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their students.