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Explosive Citizen Turnout Marks Key F.C.Town Hall on High School Plans

ONE OF THE MANY break out discussions at today's town hall on the future of the City of Falls Church's recently acquired 39 acres of high school land.
ONE OF THE MANY break out discussions at today’s town hall on the future of the City of Falls Church’s recently acquired 39 acres of high school land.

Although an official count was not immediately available, veteran observers were estimating that Saturday’s town hall event to consider options for the high school and the commercial potential for its land may have been the largest in anyone’s memory. The cafeteria space at the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, which is on the land in question, was filled to overflowing Saturday morning in what became a watershed event in the planning by the City of Falls Church and its school system for how to optimize  39 acres that was ceded into the City with the sale of its water system two years ago.

Summaries provided by the leaders of the breakout group discussions suggested a preponderance of support among the three options for dealing with the need to expand and upgrade George Mason High School was toward a one-time construction of an all-new school. While the main concern with that option was the $117 million listed price tag, interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller, responding to a question at the end, said that at this Tuesday’s School Board meeting, the subject of cost-reducing steps for the new school approach would be considered. He said the cost could possibly be lowered to $90-to-$95 million by taking out the current plan to locate the school administrative offices there, to remove plans in it for an addition to the middle school that will not actually be needed until 2025, and the elimination of at least one of three gyms included in the plans.

Schiller had floated those cost-efficiencies at a joint City Council-School Board meeting last Tuesday, but they were not included in the initial presentations of options today.

FALLS CHURCH City Manager Wyatt Shields and Interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller at today's town hall (Photo: New
FALLS CHURCH City Manager Wyatt Shields and Interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller at today’s town hall (Photo: New

The one-step new school option was also preferred by a preponderance of citizens present, according to the wrap up reports, because it would optimize the ability to render 10 acres of the land available for economic development at the earliest date. The impact of dense economic development of the 10 acres could, if not immediately, mitigate the cost to taxpayers of the new school and the idea was met favorably by a majority. The one-step new school option was also favored for its ability to provide optimum architectural design and related features.

As the City Council and School Board planning teams now go back to work on finalizing a plan to put before voters in a bond referendum in November, they will have the benefit of strong citizen input from Saturday’s event, according to Vice Mayor and event moderator Mary Beth Connelly, way beyond the numbers anticipated.