Summer is over, kids are back in school, and before we know it, Election Day will be here. In the City of Falls Church, we will be voting for governor as well as school board and city council on Election Day, but to my mind the most important question on the ballot may be the referendum asking citizens to authorize up to $120 million in general obligation bonds to replace the current George Mason High School with a newly constructed facility. A “yes” vote will authorize the expense and allow the school our kids need to be built in the most affordable way for our community.
The referendum is the result of almost a decade of work by community members, the School Board and City Council, and advisory boards and commissions. Included were comprehensive facilities, enrollment, and feasibility studies; and in-depth financial analyses. These studies determined that the current George Mason High School must be replaced because it cannot accommodate our growing student enrollment, is poorly configured for today’s teaching and learning methods, and does not meet current and future needs for the safety and security of our students and staff. Recently, after considering five options for the new facility, the School Board approved construction of a new school at the current campus based on the ‘Community School’ option. More information about the George Mason High School Feasibility Study is located on the school division’s website at fccps.org/news.
The existing high school has a capacity of 780 students, 876 including trailers, with 817 students enrolled in the 2016-17 school year. The school division’s forecasts estimate a 24 percent increase in enrollment to 1011 by 2021- 2022; and a 68 percent increase by 2031-2032 to about 1400, which is 56 percent more students than the existing school can accommodate. Data regarding student enrollment can be found at fccps.org/data.
If the referendum is approved, the detailed design for our new George Mason High School will be developed in 2018, construction will begin in 2019, and the school should open 2021-2022. During construction, students will continue to attend the existing school. The new George Mason will be a 5-story structure, accommodating 1,200-1,500 students, and costing approximately $120 million. The lifespan of the school will be about 50 years. More information about the conceptual design and plans for the ‘Community School’ option can be found within the George Mason High School Feasibility Study referenced above.
City financial analyses have determined that the most affordable approach to replacing the current high school is commercial development of approximately 10 acres on the current campus, supplemented by incremental tax rate increases and the use of a portion of current reserves. Since the school will be built first, there may be higher tax rates in the early years, and lower ones once the 10 acres of land is leased or sold and the commercial development is completed.
The financing plan for the project assumes that approximately $43 million of the cost to build the new George Mason will be covered by the sale or lease of 10 acres at the campus site that will be developed commercially. Capital costs will be further reduced by tax receipts from new businesses operating on the developed land, which are estimated to be $3 million annually. In the final analysis, the City expects that the project will require about a four-cent increase in the tax rate to pay for the school. The City’s financial plan for the new high school is located on the City government’s website in the High School Campus Project section.
If the referendum does not pass, we will still need to replace the roof and aging systems in the current building, install and replace many trailers over time to handle enrollment growth, and expand public spaces, such as the cafeteria, library, and gym, to accommodate more students. The cost of this option is expected to be $40-$50 million and likely more. Since there will be no new revenue streams from the lease or sale of land and commercial development to offset the cost, tax increases and the use of reserves will be required to finance the entire project.
There will be many opportunities to learn more and ask questions about the referendum this fall, starting with an information session this Sunday with the Superintendent and City Manager, and including a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and VPIS on September 19, a PTA forum on September 26, and a CBC town hall in October. You can also go to www.YesforFallsChurch.com to learn more, volunteer to help, or make a donation.
Please vote in November, and please vote “yes” for the referendum so that our kids have the safe, secure, and modern school they need at a cost that is most affordable for the City of Falls Church.
Susan Kearney is the former chair of the Falls Church City School Board.