Team approach needed for school construction

Published 8:57 pm Monday, September 12, 2016

Growing pains. They’re a fact of life for teenagers, for companies, organizations and for municipalities, and Suffolk is no exception to the rule.

Slowed only by the recession that stymied the housing market nationwide, the rate of population growth in Peanut City, especially in the northern end, has once again begun to accelerate. With multiple apartment and townhome complexes having opened in North Suffolk in the past couple of years and the area becoming a new hub of retail and commercial activity, the near future promises to see that community solidify its position as one of the fastest-growing areas in Virginia.

Various organizations devoted to studying demographical trends suggest the acceleration in growth has only just begun to gain steam. With an estimated 2015 population of 90,426, Suffolk is expected to flirt with the 100,000 mark by 2020, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. But within 20 years of breaking that barrier, the population of this once-sleepy city will have grown by another third, counting more then 132,000 residents, based on Weldon Cooper Center estimates.


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Such projections are the kinds of things that keep city planners awake at night. How will local roads handle the traffic? How many more police officers, firefighters and other public servants will be needed to keep all those people safe? What sort of plan should be in place to handle the added water and sewer demands?

But perhaps the most vexing question of all is one the Suffolk School Board considered last week as part of its annual discussion about a capital improvements plan: Where will Suffolk educate the children that will be part of the coming population boom?

The school system is taking steps to provide more educational space for its elementary and middle-school students in North Suffolk. Construction on a new Florence Bowser Elementary School and a new middle school has commenced.

But those schools will not satisfy all the needs that are coming, and plans must be made now to ensure that schools are not overcrowded in the future. Further complicating the matter is the fact that three of the city’s four middle-school buildings are more than 50 years old and near the end of their expected operational lifespans.

While it is the duty of the School Board to develop a capital improvements plan that addresses its needs, the particular set of challenges Suffolk faces in the coming years are a result of — and will impinge upon — the city’s development priorities and policies, and those factors are functions of decisions made at City Hall.

Therefore, it would be to everyone’s benefit if City Council were to work directly with the School Board to begin considering the school system’s construction needs for the medium and long terms. A good place to start that conversation would be in the joint task force those two bodies set up to explore opportunities to save tax dollars.

There may be no way to avoid the looming need for schools, but a team approach to planning for those facilities could help ensure that the needs are met at the lowest reasonable cost to taxpayers.