Anatomy of a school construction project

Projecting when, where, and why a new school is needed

Once new neighborhoods are built and businesses open, it’s too late.

Henrico school division policy makers and number crunchers said they work closely with county planners to determine where a new school building will be needed once economic development brings tens of thousands of new residents into a part of the 300,000-person county.

Renovations and additions to existing school buildings are a reasonable short-term fix, but when population is set to boom, nothing but a new school will do, said Penny Blumenthal, director of planning and research for HCPS until she retired this summer.

Glen Allen High School was planned for the middle of the county because population near the center of Henrico was expected to rise steadily, while the edges of the county were projected to remain stable. Blumenthal said Henrico’s eight existing high schools were bursting at the seams.

“We knew we needed a long-term fix,” she said. “We need to see sustained growth in an area before [a new school project is considered], and that’s exactly what we saw.”

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Tiffany Hinton, director of the county school division’s Department of Research and Planning, said once Henrico officials determine that a new school will be needed, county planners and district personnel identify several potential building locations, or tracts. After a close examination of each site—including its proximity to wetlands—the sites are ranked by planner preference.

The county uses ArcGIS, a designing and managing software, to map out exactly where a new school would be constructed, taking several scenarios into account, Hinton said.

She added that, as recently as 2008, Henrico planning officials evaluated more than 70 attendance boundaries at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Land for a new high school had been bought decades before Glen Allen High School was even a sketch in planners’ notebooks. Like most local school systems, HCPS purchased the property that is now Glen Allen in anticipation of economic and population growth.

With the property in hand and the population projections confirmed, a bond referendum was offered to Henrico voters, who say yes or no to borrowing money for the project. Henrico County has a Triple-A credit rating, meaning massive loans for major construction projects come with rock-bottom interest rates.

That’s why, as Assistant Superintendent for Finance Kevin Smith said, the success rate of school-related bond referendums in the county is “very good.”

Denny Carter

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