Fairfax parents seek school repairs

January 5, 2012

There are holes in the ceiling at Falls Church High School. Heating registers are rusted and corroded; sinks are stained; mold creeps along walls. And parents are fed up.

“This is a good school,” said James Stocking, father of two Falls Church students. “But we have people trying to move out of my neighborhood so their kids don’t have to go here.”

Stocking was one of more than 50 people who gathered Wednesday night to hear a presentation from UPROAR (United Parents to Restore Our Academic Resource), a group formed in part to press the Fairfax County school system to do something about the crumbling facility.

The building was built in 1967 and hasn’t been substantially renovated since. It’s not the only aging high school in the 175,000-student system in need of a major makeover. Fairfax, the region’s largest system, has a huge backlog of renovation projects, including at West Springfield, Langley and Herndon high schools. And officials seeking more classroom space for a rising population recently proposed two new elementary schools.

Without an infusion of tens of millions of dollars of cash a year, the renovation backlog will grow.

“It’s a resource issue,” Dean Tistadt, the school system’s head of facilities, told Wednesday’s crowd. He agreed that the building is in dire need of overhaul but added that “we don’t have the money to do the work we need to do.”

Fairfax schools get about $155 million a year from the County Board of Supervisors for capital projects but no such funds from the state. The schools need about $50 million more each year, Tistadt said, to keep up with facility needs.

At Falls Church, electrical wiring doesn’t support interactive whiteboards, said Principal Cathy Benner, and the computer lab has to be jury-rigged to support enough machines.

But Falls Church is 45th on the system’s priority list of 63 buildings to be renovated, a list that was established several years ago. There are no plans to begin construction at Falls Church between now and 2017, according to Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s capital improvement plan . That means that the earliest a renovation could be completed is 2024.

“The school is falling apart,” said Lynn Petrazzuolo, a member of UPROAR and the Parent, Teacher and Student Association who spoke Wednesday. “When we heard 2024 was our new date, that was unacceptable.”

Petrazzuolo gave a virtual tour of the school, showing photographs to highlight its less-than-lovely aesthetics. She also questioned whether the school’s condition, including problems with heating and cooling systems and possible asbestos in peeling caulk, poses health and safety risks.

Petrazzuolo also showed photos of W.T. Woodson High, which was recently renovated. The images of light and airy campus spaces, matching furniture and state-of-the-art technology drew audible gasps from parents.

Tistadt assured parents that although he can’t do much about looks, any health and safety problems are addressed immediately. “Just because something is stained doesn’t mean it is unhealthy or unsafe,” he said.

At the UPROAR meeting were school board members Sandy Evans (Mason) and Patty Reed (Providence), who said they understood the concerns and are seeking solutions. “We definitely need to do something about Falls Church,” Evans said in an interview.

The meeting was meant to motivate parents to speak before the board Monday at its hearing on capital improvements. It is part of a larger effort by UPROAR to draw attention to Falls Church. With 1,500 students, it is one of the county’s smallest high schools and one of its most diverse.

Many of the highest-performing students who live in the school’s attendance area go elsewhere for International Baccalaureate courses or other opportunities, according to UPROAR, and the school’s poor physical condition feeds some perceptions that the school is undesirable.

Enrollment is a factor in determining how quickly a school is renovated. Buildings that are bursting at the seams have an advantage over those, such as Falls Church, that are under capacity.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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