Local Commentary

Editorial: Passing a Big School Bond Referendum

This Friday night promises to be another smashing gala success for the non-profit Falls Church Education Foundation as hundreds of parents and supporters of Falls Church City Schools will gather to celebrate and raise money for a good cause at the Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington.

It is our profound hope that a preponderance of those attending will be prepared to win over their friends and neighbors in Falls Church in the coming months to meet the daunting needs of a world class school system suddenly bursting at the seams due to a combination of explosive enrollment growth and decades of underfunding the facilities needs of the system.

The system is at the point of needing a new high school and significant expansions of both the middle school and Thomas Jefferson Elementary. How we got to this point is important to know, but not as important as the need to generate the support in the community to pass a hefty school bond referendum this November.

Some people want to delay the referendum, but this would be a mistake in our view. That’s because the election this November, with the state’s three top offices on the ballot, is where a larger than usual voter turnout can be expected. The larger the turnout, the more likely reasonable requests for bond funding can be expected to pass. That’s been the pattern.

But it is going to take still a lot more information gathering and consensus building to do what we think will assure that a bond referendum will win the approval of the City’s electorate in November. It boils down to this: In our view, the price tag of the referendum should not exceed $75-$80 million.

That’s a lot less than the $120 million that was projected last fall just for the new high school. But a referendum of this size, by far the biggest ask ever in the City’s history, can succeed only if voters are convinced that the City and school policy makers have made a good faith effort to draw down the cost as much as possible while still preserving the core educational needs of students in the system.

Cost ameliorating factors must include:

• Limiting the new high school to its core instructional needs, putting off things like a large performing arts center or competition gym to a later date or possibly a proffer from a commercial developer.

• Offering a carte blanche to a developer to come up with a “highest and best use” plan for the 10 acres of the campus site that can be so developed. Don’t restrict the location on the site. If a plan encroaches on an athletic field, for example, don’t rule that out (temporary relocation to alternative sites can easily be found for a couple years). Once an optimal plan is in hand, then planners can consider its merits.

These are two indispensable components for success with the referendum.