Supervisors Turn Away Fairfax Schools Proposal

"We thought we had a compelling case," schools chief Jack Dale said. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors dealt a significant setback yesterday to a $130 million school system plan to consolidate school headquarters in the Falls Church area.

After meeting with School Superintendent Jack D. Dale behind closed doors, supervisors voted unanimously in public to decline to take action on the plan to buy and renovate an office building at 8111 Gatehouse Rd.

The School Board had approved the plan Thursday in an 11 to 1 vote, with the majority contending that it would save money in the long term to centralize school system operations near the Capital Beltway and Route 50.

But Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said yesterday's vote sent a signal to school planners to go "back to the drawing board." Herrity said that in a tight budget year, he was concerned the project would not save enough money.

"This is a bad time to be doing this. We should be focusing on schools, teachers and students and not administration," he said.

Dale, head of the 165,700-student system since 2004, said he was surprised and disappointed.

"We thought we had a compelling case," he said, contending that the project would help the system shed costly leases and free up school facilities needed for instruction. Dale said he was unsure what the school system's next step will be.

School officials have been working for several months to advance a plan to bring together about 1,700 school employees from more than a dozen aging or leased facilities. The project was endorsed by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

Because of declining real estate revenue, rising fuel prices and other factors, the combined budget shortfall for the county government and schools is expected to reach $430 million for the next fiscal year. County and school officials are scrutinizing budgets in every department and program to save money.

In 2004, county supervisors approved a similar plan to buy a building at 8115 Gatehouse Rd., where about 600 school system employees now work, as well as an adjacent three-acre parcel, where officials expected to build an office tower.

But when the building at 8111 Gatehouse became available, school officials saw it as more affordable.

Officials estimated that the total cost to buy, renovate and furnish the 35-year-old building would be about $110 million. But they requested approval to borrow as much $130 million in case costs increase. The price of the building is $52 million, plus as much as $5 million for upgrades.

Under the plan, the acquisition would be financed through a 30-year bond issued by the county's Economic Development Authority. The first $8 million payment would not be due until 2013. Once interest payments are due, school system costs would outweigh savings for the next eight years by as much as $2.7 million.

School officials say that, without cost overruns, the purchase and renovation would ultimately save about $22 million over 30 years, through avoiding lease payments and elimination of some staff positions.

The lone School Board member to oppose the plan Thursday was Ilryong Moon (At Large).

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