In Fairfax, new schools on the way

The Fairfax County School Board approved a $866 million construction program Thursday night that includes plans to build elementary schools and renovate aging facilities.

The Capital Improvement Program, approved 9 to 2, with one member abstaining, also includes a plan for a new elementary on the Fort Belvoir Army base, built and jointly funded by the Defense Department. The new schools will help the administration address a projected surge in enrollment. By 2018, the school population will grow by about 13,000 students to 199,000.

“As school membership continues to grow, we face a critical shortage of available classrooms and facilities,” School Board Chair Ilryong Moon said in a statement.

The board also passed a motion seeking to finish renovations at the five “legacy” high schools in Fairfax — Langley, West Springfield, Herndon, Oakton and Falls Church — built in the 1960s. None of the five schools has received a complete makeover, despite sagging conditions.

The School Board has said repeatedly that the administration lacks sufficient funding to keep up with enrollment growth and the dire needs of their decrepit facilities. The board has lobbied the county board of supervisors to increase the annual bond limit of $155 million. The supervisors have so far rebuffed such requests, saying that doing so could hurt Fairfax’s credit ratings.

Instead, the school system has relied on band-aid measures, such as adding portable classroom trailers. At last count, more than 1,100 such temporary structures dot Fairfax County.

“We see approximately 3,000 new students each year, and are looking at continued enrollment growth over the next five years,” Moon said in the statement. “Over the past five years, this growth has required an additional 130 classrooms annually to keep pace with enrollment growth. However, we have not been able to meet those needs and have added only 74 classrooms per year.”

One solution includes renovating schools such as Falls Church High School. Originally built in 1960 as a middle school, it is the oldest of the five legacy schools. The building was previously renovated in 1988, and included roof repairs and upgrades to the heating and air conditioning systems, said Joan Daly, president of the Falls Church High School parent, teacher, student association and the mother of a 17-year-old senior.

“We have antiquated facilities and we don’t have the ability to teach kids [science, technology, engineering and math] courses because our lab facilities are so outdated,” Daly said.

She said many parents whose children would otherwise attend Falls Church “pupil place” their kids at other schools in the area because the building is in such poor condition.

Daly said that the ranking system the administration uses is flawed, and discrepancies on an assessment tool led Falls Church to fall far behind on the renovation que.

On Thursday, the School Board approved a motion calling on the facilities department to look for ways to speed up the renovation process for Falls Church. Under the current schedule, the construction might not begin before 2023.

Daly described the motion as a hollow victory. Throughout the meeting Thursday, board members said the motion would not force them to promise anything to Falls Church parents.

“We are not actually committing to do anything,” said Moon (At Large).

“We’re not committing this board to any action or outcome,” said Ted Velkoff (At Large).

Daly said she was disappointed and described the current process as unfair.

“I feel like the amendments that passed were pretty watered down but at least it gave us some recognition that there is a problem with the legacy schools, especially with Falls Church and that we have to wait yet again to be given attention as far as getting renovated,” she said. “They are putting us off for another date, for another meeting just to placate us. I don’t think we got anything tang out of it at all.”

In a statement, the School Board said the current funding limits were partly to blame.

“Funding for capital improvement projects is limited by a $155 million annual limit on school bond sales as determined by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors,” the statement read. “Providing the additional new schools and capacity enhancements to address the enrollment growth will delay the scheduling of many future renovation projects as funding is limited.”

At Thursday’s meeting, School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully) offered one proposal: new taxes.

“It’s apparent we can’t keep up with our need with aging facilities and our student population growing by thousands each year,” Smith said. “We need more revenue.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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