Fairfax looks to other counties to help pay for TJ High School renovation

When Fairfax County’s most prestigious high school undergoes a major renovation over the next three years, residents from other Northern Virginia counties may help pay the $90 million bill under a new plan to be announced Monday.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale’s plan calls for neighboring counties with students enrolled at the highly competitive Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to help cover the cost of an extensive renovation to begin in the spring.

“My sense was that it seemed only fair that for students who are attending Thomas Jefferson who are not from our jurisdiction that our taxpayers should not have to pay the full burden of the renovation,” Dale said in an interview. “It should be equitably distributed across all the students.”

TJ, as the Alexandria-based magnet school is known, attracts hundreds of the brightest students from across the region seeking rigorous classes such as multivariable calculus, neurobiology and quantum mechanics. About 300 of the school’s 1,815 students come from beyond Fairfax County’s borders.

Under Dale’s proposal, school divisions would pay toward the cost of the construction based on how many students from that jurisdiction are enrolled at TJ.

Of the $90 million total cost, Arlington, Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties and the city of Falls Church would pay nearly $14.5 million, or $49,850 per student. Loudoun County, with 157 students enrolled at TJ, would pay $7.8 million alone.

Officials in Arlington and Loudoun said they would not comment on the proposal until they have had a chance to review it.

Dale said his plan is not unprecedented. TJ is one of 19 Virginia Governor’s Schools across the state that offer high-level courses to gifted students. Other such schools in Virginia include a fee for building maintenance and improvement in the cost of tuition. Under the current arrangement for TJ, other counties’ students pay a per-pupil tuition that covers only operational costs. The new proposal would give the other counties two options to pay for their part of the renovation: a one-time fee to be paid in 2015 or small annual payments spread over 30 years.

“I think it’s fair, and it appears it is the regular way of operating in the rest of Virginia with other governor’s schools,” said Fairfax school board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville). “Our capital budget is never enough to cover our needs. . . . We are just not able to fund our capital program at the rate that we should,” and the new plan could help offset costs.

Kevin Sneed, Fairfax County schools’ director of design and construction services, said the TJ renovation will more than double the school’s size. Sneed said the facilities will include state-of-the-art laboratories for neuroscience, a massive wave tank for oceanography students and an optics lab equipped with lasers. The building will be powered partially by solar panels and will be installed with superefficient heating and cooling systems. Sneed said the project would be one of the largest expansions he’s ever done in Fairfax.

Dale will present the proposal to the school board at a Monday work session. With the school board’s approval, Dale will officially present the construction payment options to school superintendents from the other counties. The renovation is slated to be completed by the summer of 2016.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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