In Fairfax, relief in sight for Bailey’s elementary school crowding problems

November 27, 2013

A new, five-story urban elementary school in Falls Church may open next fall for about 400 students to address concerns about surging growth in the Bailey’s Crossroads area, Fairfax school officials said Tuesday night.

Officials at a community meeting outlined plans to retrofit an existing office building in Falls Church as a new school to alleviate severe crowding at Bailey's Elementary. School officials told parents and area residents that the renovation of the building, located at 6245 Leesburg Pike, could cost about $8 million and be open next year in September.

“The beauty of this site is that it’s already built,” said Mason supervisor Penny Gross. “We don’t have to take the time to build the school.”

Jeff Platenberg, the assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation, said that the school system has worked for about seven years to find a solution to the problems at Bailey’s, which is about 30 percent over capacity with 1,300 students. He said the current solution — to convert a commercial office building into a school — would be a first for Fairfax.

“This is the best solution for the Bailey’s crisis,” said school board member Sandy Evans (Mason).

The school system is finalizing a deal to purchase or use eminent domain to acquire the building, which has been vacant for about a year, Platenberg said. He attributed the project’s innovative approach to Evans and Gross.

“It’s through the collaboration and vision and insight between Penny and Sandy working together in trying to solve this situation,” Platenberg said.

Kevin Sneed, the director of design and construction, said that his team gutted the Bailey’s library last summer, replacing books with desks and chairs for extra classroom space. There are 19 trailers dotting the school’s campus, covering green space and old hopscotch courts.

“The overcrowding has become worse and worse,” Sneed said.

In recent weeks, Sneed said he contracted the architectural firm Cooper Carry to help with the conversion. Sneed said he was impressed by the firm’s previous conversion of an IBM office building into a school in Atlanta.

The new school will open with a paved play area with basketball hoops but no indoor gym. In September, school officials had presented plans to the Bailey’s community for the new school with a turf field and a gym located inside an inflated bubble structure.

John C. McGranahan Jr., a Hunton & Williams land use lawyer assisting Fairfax schools with the building acquisition, said that the school system cannot modify the exterior of the property without going through a new zoning process.

Many of the Bailey’s parents expressed frustration at the Tuesday meeting and said there was confusion surrounding the overall plan. Suzie Phipps, the first vice president of the Bailey’s PTA, said that parents felt misled that the new school would not have some of the amenities previously described by Fairfax schools officials.

“Is it going to perfect? No. Can we make it perfect? We can make it close,” Gross said. “The other amenities we are used to for schools will have to wait. The most important thing is that we get the build retrofitted for classes so that our kids can be in a non-crowded school.”

Phipps said that Bailey’s problem needs an immediate fix and that the new building is a good solution.

“We would rather have the building now and a playground a few months later than not have the building at all,” Phipps said.

Phipps also said that parents were under the impression that the new building would be one of two new schools opening in the Bailey’s area with previously bonded county funds.

“I have some grave concerns,” Phipps said at the meeting. "We were told that there was money available.”

Platenberg said that the plan had not been communicated clearly to parents in the past.

“There is a need for two schools to solve this problem,” Platenberg said. But he noted that there is no funding available currently to build a new school from the ground up.

Jeff Longo, a Bailey's area resident with a 2 year old and an infant child, said he felt misled voting for the bond if the money ends up not going toward new construction for a school.

“A lot of us are really frustrated,” Longo said. “The story keeps changing.”

Gwynnen Chervenic, the Bailey’s PTA president, said that she was disappointed that the bond funding issue had not been properly explained to parents earlier.

“I would caution: let’s not let the perfect get in the way of the good,” Gross said. “This is an opportunity to resolve a lot of our issues.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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