Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Getting It Right on F.C.’s School Facilities

Current attention rightly focuses on next year’s budget. But also of critical importance is the School Board’s resolution of a long-standing dispute over the right next step for school facilities. How did we do it — for far less than the $70 million some expected and without letting enrollments exceed capacity as others feared?

Great leadership certainly played a huge role. Last Spring, a facilities planning committee led by Susan Kearney, delivered a Draft Master Plan that comprehensively reviewed existing facilities and developed broad concepts for meeting future school and community needs. The community’s diverse components gave input — parents, teachers, support staff, and athletic, arts and recreational users. Superintendent Lois Berlin, operations chief Hunter Kimble and a team of expert consultants combined this input with best practices to achieve an attractive, well-organized report.

Last Summer and Fall, School Board Chair Joan Wodiska used her education policy expertise to inform the Board, Council and city financial advisors about super-low-interest Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs). She persuasively argued that over the life of the project we could save $2.5 million in debt service. Also, she pointed out that by focusing on TJ, we can improve energy-efficiency at the city’s oldest school building. Perhaps most important, she spent many hours drafting our QSCB application to meet a late-November deadline.

Great community support was also a key factor. Our application for $5.95 million in additions and renovations at Thomas Jefferson Elementary directly responded to parents’ requests to move 5th grade back to the elementary level and 8th grade to middle school. Adding a dozen classrooms and enlarging TJ’s cafeteria and other common spaces to include an extra grade could provide practically all the room our schools need for the next eight years or more. With grades 2 thru 5 at TJ, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School can absorb the transfer of 8th grade there (where we had earlier created ample room for three grades), and we gain room to grow at George Mason High School, which would house just four grades — 9 thru 12 — instead of five. The City Council, Planning Commission and Long Range Financial Planning Work Group all gave unanimous and enthusiastic endorsements. And by the way, expert educators agree – this change in grade configurations is the right thing to do.

We might hold public costs down and enhance our products if we look to private fundraising through the Education Foundation.

Since the QSCB application was approved in March for $3 million, the Board has crafted an overall plan of $10 million. Most of the work will be at TJ, but changes at MEH would upgrade the science labs, and our preschool would move from Mount Daniel to the Child Development Center on Cherry Street. We’ll work with Council to stay within the city’s funding resources, observe QSCB’s mandated timeline and city policy on referenda, and protect the TJ neighborhood from increased traffic. Also, during construction, we’ll ensure safety and insulate educational activities.

We recognize that our preschool request impacts two other preschool operations — one run by the city at the Community Center and another by Easter Seals at the CDC. No changes in preschool locations would occur until the latter part of 2012. In the meantime, we’ll engage in a three-way dialogue seeking the best possible outcome for all three organizations and the families they serve.

Our process involves an advisory group created last Fall, now called LEAPFROG which stands for Long-range Education Architecture Planning Facilities Research and Outreach Group. This body includes Board and Council members, Planning Commissioners and executive-level city and school staff. Also, we may reconvene a facilities planning committee, conduct a survey among parents and staff, and provide for a community forum on school facilities. There was too little time for a survey or forum before QSCB’s tight application deadline, but now we’ll need to hear from all segments of the community to get the greatest possible benefit from this investment.

We might hold public costs down and enhance our products if we look to private fundraising through the Education Foundation. Successful fundraising for facilities is done frequently by religious and other nonprofit groups, and often to house educational activities. The Foundation has already begun to connect its efforts to specific facilities in its fundraising for the naming of existing rooms for Jessie Thackrey and Lou Olom. In this instance, the fundraising could support the construction of entirely new spaces.

We can take just a few more months to get QSCB-aided work underway, but we should anticipate another 18 months to make the right choices on a 10 to 20-year building plan that integrates what we do at TJ with later projects elsewhere. Please take advantage of all opportunities to provide input and assessment as we seek to fulfill the needs and aspirations of our community for world-class learning at each of our buildings for the long-term.

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