Herrity Prompts Look at More School Funds

  Enlarge Photo    
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fairfax County will study the possibility of increasing spending on school renovations, but to do so would likely require delays in such other pressing projects as park and road upgrades and a new police headquarters, officials said yesterday.

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who is a candidate in next week's board chairman election, asked board members yesterday to consider increasing annual school construction funding by $25 million starting in 2012. For much of his first year in office, Herrity has been pressing for renovations to his alma mater, West Springfield High School. Four additional high schools -- Herndon, Falls Church, Oakton and Langley -- are similarly desperate for upgrades, he said.

"We've been spending far too much on new palaces," Herrity said, speaking of the county's construction in recent years of new libraries, park facilities and an enormous new emergency communications center. "We've got some very real needs in the schools. It's a question of prioritizing. We've got to weigh those priorities."

Herrity received an enthusiastic second from Vice Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who is Herrity's chief opponent in next Tuesday's special election to replace the former board chairman, Gerald E. Connolly, who is now in Congress. Two independent candidates, Carey Campbell and Christopher DeCarlo, are also on the ballot.

Herrity and Bulova have parried at campaign events over who would be friendlier to public schools.

Bulova used the final meeting before the election to announce that the county school system is likely to receive as much as $74 million under the proposed stimulus plan being debated in Congress.

Neither candidate's announcement represents a solid campaign promise for voters. The final amount of stimulus aid Fairfax would receive rests with Congress. And Herrity's school construction plan does little more than instruct County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to look into the matter.

Griffin, meanwhile, had much to say about the consequences of tilting the balance of the county's capital construction budget toward schools and away from other programs. He said the top priorities include expansion of Fairfax Connector bus service, renovation of district police stations and building a new police headquarters.

Griffin also noted that the county has already designed construction spending plans so that schools receive most of the money. The board can choose to tilt the formula further, but it would come at a price, he said.

"It's just a matter of what choices the board wants to make and how we fund them, but we certainly could do this," Griffin said.

To finance a long list of capital construction projects for county facilities and schools, Fairfax borrows about $275 million a year through the sale of bonds. It pays off about that much debt each year as well, so the county's overall debt has remained roughly the same in recent years -- about $2 billion. (The county spends about $280 million a year on bond payments and adheres to a policy of not letting those payments exceed 10 percent of the overall budget. The figure is currently 8 percent.)

About $155 million of the newly borrowed money goes to schools each year. But the amount for schools is scheduled to drop to $130 million in 2012, and that is what Herrity has zeroed in on.

Herrity said the county's five "legacy" high schools -- all of which were built in 1966 -- are so desperate for improvements that at West Springfield High School alone, the facilities staff fielded more than 3,000 work orders last year.

Herrity also said that the region's marquee public high school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, is in dire need of upgrades. He said he would like to see the county pursue a public-private partnership with a technology company, such as Microsoft or Google, to finance its renovations.

Griffin said a renovation of Thomas Jefferson could cost as much as $60 million. He said he is open to the idea of private investment, although he noted that an economic downturn might not be the time to seek outside help.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company