West Potomac parents voice concern about overcrowding to FCPS officials

West Potomac High School currently has almost 2,600 students, putting it at 116 percent of its capacity. The campus has 18 trailers — the most in the county for a school not under renovation — and 59 of the school’s teachers don’t have permanent classrooms, using carts to move from room to room throughout the day.

The situation has parents, students and teachers frustrated, and at a Tuesday evening PTSA meeting, West Potomac community members asked a senior county administrator how this happened and why more information about a planned addition has not been shared.

Jeffrey Platenberg, FCPS’s Assistant Superintendent for the Department of Facilities and Transportation Services, took questions and explained the ins and outs of the school system’s capital improvement program (CIP) for about 45 minutes in West Potomac’s auditorium. The meeting was also attended by Mount Vernon District and current school board chair Karen Corbett Sanders, Lee District school board representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax, Region 3 Superintendent Terry Dade and West Potomac principal Tangy Millard.

The back-and-forth between the crowd and Platenberg was at times contentious, with some parents questioning FCPS’s priorities and others pleading for clearer answers about the upcoming project to add capacity to the school.

Platenberg explained that West Potomac’s upcoming addition, which is currently in the planning phase, is in the CIP’s queue and scheduled to be done by the end of the 2022 school year. At that time the school’s design capacity will rise from 2,331 to 3,000, which the county estimates will be enough to handle enrollment projections. Funding for the actual construction is expected to be paid for by a 2019 bond referendum that will need to be approved by voters. If the bond is approved, construction will begin in fiscal year 2021.

Until then, little can be done — although Platenberg said Superintendent Scott Brabrand would be approaching Fairfax County officials about expediting the permit process, which itself takes 14 months.

2018-2019 Capacity 2018-2019 Enrollment 2021-2022 Capacity 2021-2022 Projected Enrollment
Edison 2,103 2,060 2,103 2,234
Hayfield 2,249 2,033 2,249 2,107
Mount Vernon 2,451 2,034 2,451 2,226
West Potomac 2,231 2,593 3,000 2,888
2018-2019 enrollment figures as of Sept. 30. Source: FCPS.edu

Multiple parents said that, in an era of school lockdowns and potential outside threats, the status quo is not safe. One parent noted her daughter currently has four classes in trailers, and wondered along with others what would happen if so many kids were outside when a worst-case scenario unfolded.

“If you have a freshman in high school, this is not projected to be fixed until they’re gone from here,” the mother of one student said. “It doesn’t erase the concern we have for our children now and for their time at West Potomac.”

While construction of the addition will eliminate the need for trailers, it is not clear if there is a plan to connect West Potomac’s three buildings. The unique campus was originally designed to be magnet high school in the 1970s, according to Corbett Sanders, but now creates security challenges, parents said. There is no design for the new building yet, Platenberg said, adding that input from the community will be part of that process.

Some in attendance, saying the overcrowding problem has been coming for years, questioned why some local elementary schools with surplus capacity were renovated and expanded first.

“I question the way dollars are bring spent,” one parent said, referencing the decision to first renovate Stratford Landing Elementary School. “There’s a crisis here. … What is the plan and timeframe to actually get a solution?”

Another parent said he didn’t believe FCPS had any plan at all for dealing with overcrowding, something Platenberg pushed back against.

“Yes, there is a plan for an addition at this school,” Platenberg responded. “Yes, there is a plan to address the overcrowding that is projected at this school.”

But many parents wanted more details about the plan, with PTSA President Katie Savage saying that parents had been pressing for years to get specific information presented to the school beyond what is on the FCPS website. Savage received the biggest applause of the night when she defended the concern of parents, blaming any incorrect information being shared on the refusal of FCPS officials to meet prior to Monday night.

Our job as a PTA is to inform, and to advocate and to communicate. There was no intention by anybody in this PTA to misinform anybody. In fact on several occoasions we’ve tried to get our questions answered,” Savage said, listing various times the PTSA had tried to get more information from FCPS  administrators. “That is when the PTA put this together. To say, ‘you know what, I don’t know what else to do.’ We’re volunteers, we’re trying to advocate for kids, for our teachers.”

Platenberg offered up an apology to the crowd, and promised to make communication a bigger priority in the future.

These are serious matters. [Otherwise the PTSA] wouldn’t take the time to try and get information, to visit the superintendent, to invite us down here to address very real concerns,” Platenberg said at the end of his portion of the meeting. “There’s a very real plan, we will execute that plan, we publish and articulate that plan — together, so we’re all on the same [page].