Fairfax school board votes to acquire building for new urban school in Falls Church

The Fairfax County school board Thursday night approved a plan to acquire a vacant commercial office building through eminent domain or purchase, with the goal of converting the structure into a school before fall 2014.

The board voted 9 to 3 to obtain the five-story building, located at 6245 Leesburg Pike in Falls Church, which will be retrofitted over the summer. The building will serve a second campus for the severely crowded Bailey’s Elementary, which has more than 1,300 students. The school — the first multi-story, urban-style school in the county — likely will be split by grades into the two buildings when the academic year begins next fall.

At Bailey’s — which holds one of the largest elementary school populations in the state — a total of 19 trailers provide class space for 400 students. Sandy Evans, the Mason district school board member, said that 1,593 students are projected to attend Bailey’s by 2017.

The vote came after members of communities adjacent to the new building expressed frustration with the school administration’s secretive negotiations to acquire the property.

Ernie Wells, who lives in the nearby Sleepy Hollow Manor area, said the process lacked transparency and had engendered “a sense of mistrust and misunderstanding” among residents.

“We demand that you keep us better informed,” Wells said told the school board.

At a meeting last week with school officials, some area residents complained that they felt misled by the administration. Many said that they had voted for the bond measure on the November ballot expecting the $20 million to be spent on a brand new school to be built in the Bailey’s area. The money will now be spent renovating the 6245 Leesburg Pike building, and there are no plans to build a new school in the Bailey’s area, where open land is scarce.

Superintendent Karen Garza said the administration had failed to inform the community about the project.

“On behalf of the school system I do want to apologize,” Garza said. “Some of the communication — or lack thereof — has caused lots of confusion. . . We want to be a good neighbor.”

School board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said that as a business owner he did not approve of acquiring the building through eminent domain. He said that the school board’s power of eminent domain should only be employed as a last resort.

“I don’t think we should ever take property rights lightly,” Storck said. “We should be taking that away until we have no other option.”

Area resident Joanne Gartenman testified before the school board and said that the new location would present a number of problems for the Bailey’s community.

She said that students wanting to play outside in the fresh air would instead be “subjected to exhaust fumes from six lanes of traffic,” on the busy Route 7 thoroughfare.

“Is that what you want for your young children?” Gartenman asked. “I think not.”

Suzie Phipps, the first vice president of the Bailey’s PTA, told the school board that the new building is not ideal but will fix Bailey’s crowding problems.

“It meets our immediate need,” Phipps said. Plus, she said, “It’s not another trailer.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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