By a pair of unanimous votes on successive nights this week, the Falls Church City Council and the Falls Church School Board stepped boldly into the campaign to win voter approval in a November referendum to fund construction of a major expansion and renovation of one of the City’s four schools, the Mt. Daniel Elementary.
Monday the City Council took little time to approve, 7-0, a final reading of a measure to place on the November ballot a public referendum to authorize $15.6 million toward the expansion of the school, which if approved by voters would by the end of October 2016 enjoy an expanded capacity from 275 currently (or 370 counting students currently being taught in temporary trailers) to 500.
According to School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, speaking to the City Council Monday night, the new project would relieve pressures on the rest of the system, allowing in particular for second grade students at the now-strapped Thomas Jefferson Elementary to locate at Mt. Daniel.
The $15.6 million price tag on the project will add up to slightly over $1 million a year in debt service, according to Richard LaCondre, the City’s chief financial officer, and $1 million of the funds would be expended in the current fiscal year, followed by $8 million in FY2015 and $6.6 million in FY2016.
While the Council took its move on Monday night, the School Board followed Tuesday night with a unanimous vote to approve the design plans of the Grunley Construction Company, as presented at a meeting last Thursday of the Architectural Selection Advisory Committee (ASAC) for the schools, preferring them to those submitted by the Hess Company.
As was explained at Tuesday’s School Board meeting, the Grunley plan calls for a more complete new construction with access off of Oak Street, while the Hess plan called for keeping key components of the existing building and bringing access off of Highland Avenue.
Grunley was also praised for having a better plan for relocating of students during the construction process.
Superintendent Jones, School Board member John Lawrence and the schools’ facilities coordinator Steven Padilla attended a meeting with 25 members of the Mt. Daniel Homeowners Association on Monday night, and were happy to report that the reaction from the neighbors to the proposed new construction was “very positive,” even as concerns for issues such as storm water and parking remain to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
But constructive discussions on mitigating parking pressures in the neighborhood both during and following construction were held. School Board member Kieran Sharpe hailed the “cooperative tone” of the meeting with the neighbors, as contrasted with “previous experiences” when expansion efforts at Mt. Daniel were undertaken.
Dr. Jones told the City Council Monday that the projections for continued robust enrollment growth in the City’s schools ranges out to a 20 year time frame, and that all the capital improvement projects on the drawing boards now, including for a new high school, are being conformed to what projections over that period will involve.
It is estimated that the probable life of the newly constructed and reconstructed site will be 50 years.
Principal and interest on the bonds, should the fall referendum pass, will be paid from taxes on real estate and tangible personal property in the City.
Council member Phil Duncan noted that the annual debt service on the Mt. Daniel bonds, should they be approved by voters in the fall, will come to less than four cents on the tax rate.
But the decision will be up to the voters in November, since the F.C. Council passed an ordinance in the late 1980s requiring all capital expenditure projects with price tags of greater than 10 percent of the annual operating budget of the City to be subjected to a public referendum for approval.
City resident Trish Horowitz spoke to the Council Monday night as the incoming president of the City’s Elementary School PTA. Given the recent years’ explosion in enrollment growth, “The schools are in dire need of your support,” she said.
The language of the referendum included in the Council’s approval vote Monday reads as follows:
“QUESTION: Shall the City of Falls Church, Virginia, be authorized to contract a debt and issue its general obligation bonds in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed Fifteen Million Six Hundred Thousand Dollars ($15,600,000.00) for the purpose of paying the costs incident to constructing, reconstructing, equipping and/or reequiping, in whole or in part, the Mount Daniel Elementary School, and shall Ordinance No. ____ of the City authorizing the issuance of such bonds be effective? ( ) Yes ( ) No.”
The action this week takes the form of a formal request to the Circuit Court of Arlington County to order a referendum election for Nov. 4. It gives the court more than the required 81 days for the election to take place following the date the court enters the order.