A Push For School Repairs

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

The priority list for renovations of Fairfax County's public schools includes almost 50 schools. West Springfield High is not among them.

That puzzles Kim Cecelski, a West Springfield parent, who recently walked through the 42-year-old facility, pointing out missing ceiling tiles, leaking pipes, sagging brown classroom trailers and a running track that can't be used for competition because it's cracked and uneven.

"We do a great job with what we have," Cecelski said of the high-achieving school. "But it's an old school; that's what it comes down to."

Cecelski is one of hundreds of parents lobbying the school system for a makeover. A recent meeting in the high school's cafeteria drew more than 150 parents, some of whom have children still in elementary or middle school.

Many local officials have rallied to their cause. Fairfax Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), a West Springfield graduate, is organizing tours of the facility for other elected officials.

He said he is concerned about a "musty smell" in the trailers, classrooms that are "uncomfortably warm" because of antiquated heating and air-conditioning systems and crowding that has forced a guitar class to meet in a hallway.

"Those are the kinds of things that can impact education," Herrity said.

School Board member Elizabeth T. Bradsher (Springfield) said that she thinks the school has been overlooked and that it's time it received some attention.

West Springfield High opened in 1966 and underwent basic repairs in the 1980s.

That touch-up disqualified the school for consideration later, when a consultant developed the school system's priority lists in 1990 and 2000.

But priority lists are getting another look, and the independent review will consider all schools, including West Springfield, that were renovated before 1990.

The school is not guaranteed to make the short list. Competition is steep, with nearly $2 billion worth of repairs needed and only about $155 million a year to do the work. A complete renovation of the school would cost about $65 million, not including additions.

"We want this to be a defensible, rational, transparent process," rather than a political process, said Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for Fairfax schools.

Meanwhile, efforts by parents and politicians have brought improvements to the school. Workers renovated at least three bathrooms. This summer, they intend to replace insulation around pipes to eliminate leaks and prevent mold and to install a new divider in the gym. They also plan to improve the track so it can be used for competitions. The sign in front of the school, which had been missing an R, will also be replaced.

Until recently, "we slipped through the cracks," said Nancy Baldino, West Springfield's PTA president. "Nobody paid any attention to us, and we never complained." With some help from a new school board member, a new supervisor and a new principal, though, "the stars aligned," she said.

Parent Michelle Nelson-Davis came to the meeting this month with her three children. The family moved to the area last year and chose to move into the West Springfield district because of the school's reputation and test scores.

But when she drove by it for the first time, she said she was "shocked" to see the aging exterior. With her eldest son heading into ninth grade and two more planning to attend, she hopes the renewed efforts can start to turn around the facility.

"It's good to know it's on the administration's radar screen," she said.

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