The City of Falls Church’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary School has announced it is moving ahead with the first phase of a much-needed expansion program. The F.C. school on South Oak Street has secured a $3 million zero-interest Qualified School Construction Bond, part of a federal economic stimulus package distributed throughout the country via individual states to local school districts. Falls Church was one of only 33 school divisions in Virginia to secure awards in the $229 million round.
At a community meeting held Thursday, May 26, City School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin told parents and local residents that Thomas Jefferson Elementary was facing pressure from rising enrolment and, with the award of the zero-interest bond, it would be able to begin a $5.95 million project to expand and renew the school. In the last ten years alone, the school population in Falls Church City grew by 17%.
Development of the site will run in two phases. The first will expand the school, adding 12 new classrooms, replacing trailers with purpose-built classrooms and increasing the size of the cafeteria to cope with an expected increase in enrolment as the city and the region continues to attract new residents with young families. The development will also enable fifth graders who would have gone to Mary Ellen Henderson to attend Thomas Jefferson. This first phase is expected to be completed by 2013.
The second phase will renovate other communal areas, including the library, gym and some of the older classrooms and introduce a powerful new WiFi network. This network will be powerful enough to serve not just the students in the school but also to provide WiFi access to low-income students in nearby homes.
Pursuit of a QSCB loan was the Falls Church City School Board’s top priority this fall. “We are thrilled by and grateful for the state’s decision,” said School Board Chair, Joan Wodiska. “A year from now, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School will hit capacity. Our City needed the tremendous financial opportunity and assistance afforded through a QSCB to meet growing student populations, create a 21st century learning community, and eliminate trailers. The state’s announcement comes at a critical time for the City and will save our taxpayers an estimated $1.25 million just on interest payments.”
“This was a team effort. By working together – the School Board, City Council, Planning Commission and the Long Range Financial Advisory Group – produced a decisive victory for City residents. I am proud of our work and deeply grateful for everyone’s contribution. This is a genuine community victory.”
Some parents at the meeting raised concerns about the effect on children of all the construction work in the school and were pleased to hear that throughout the process there would still be safe places to eat and play. Local residents at the meeting also raised questions about the effects of expansion on parking in the street, noise and disruption during construction, particularly on Saturday mornings, and the potential loss of green space, including a heartfelt comment that “the only large open space we have in the city of Falls Church is this one. This is our Central Park. It defies common sense to put a building into our largest open space when we have other options. I really don’t care about the construction. I don’t care about the noise or anything else in the next three or four years. I care whether, ten years from now, we have preserved our largest open space in Falls Church.”
To help those attending the meeting to get a clear sense of the footprint of the proposed expansion, the school provided displays with artist projections of the draft plans and laid out lines of cones to mark out the locations of the new buildings.
TJ Principal Robert Palermo welcomed the development and congratulated the school board and the city for their efforts and the care being put into the design: “We need more space. Considerations were given to the best way to create that space. This was the project selected. I hope there is as much green space as possible for the kids to play and for the community to use also, as I know it gets heavy use after hours.”
Following this week’s meeting to garner feedback from local residents and parents on design and impact issues, there will be a formal groundbreaking ceremony on June 13. Anyone interested in joining the Architectural Selection Advice Committee considering the educational or environmental implications of prospective designs for the project can contact the team at Tjproject@fccps.org.
Details of the initial development plans are posted online at http://www.fccps.org/board/facilitystudy/