Fairfax Schools Try Again On Office Consolidation

By Michael Alison Chandler and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 13, 2009

Plans to expand the headquarters of the Fairfax County school system, shelved last fall by supervisors who cited high costs and tight budgets, were revived this week after school officials trimmed their asking price to consolidate offices near Falls Church.

The Board of Supervisors had rejected an initial $110 million proposal in September and asked the school system to slim it down. School officials came back Monday in a closed-door meeting with a $95 million plan to buy and refurbish a 275,000-square-foot building at 8111 Gatehouse Rd. The revised plan includes lower costs for renovations and furniture. Philadelphia-based owner BPG Properties also dropped the price to $45 million from $52 million.

Even a smaller-scale proposal remains sensitive for supervisors, who say a major investment for school administration sends the wrong message when class sizes are projected to grow and teacher salaries are frozen.

But some supervisors said the revised plan appeared to be a better deal that could help ease this year's budget crunch and bring lasting savings.

"I thought the proposal we saw yesterday was much improved," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D). She has not decided whether to back the plan, though she said it could save money.

The plan would be financed through a 30-year bond issued by the county's Economic Development Authority, and the first $7.3 million payment would not be due until 2013. In the plan's first three years, officials anticipate savings of more than $11 million for the 169,000-student system.

Costs would outweigh savings for four years after repayment begins, but officials say the plan would pay for itself over the life of the loan, saving $62 million in current dollars, in part by eliminating 28 administrative positions. The original proposal projected $22 million in savings and would have cut 18 such positions.

The new building would bring together 1,100 employees scattered in a dozen facilities. It would allow the school system to terminate five leases and restore to classroom use three former schools now used as offices.

The first phase of the consolidation began in 2004, when the county approved a similar plan to buy a building at 8115 Gatehouse Rd. About 600 employees work there. Officials expected to construct a second office building on adjacent land, but when a building next door became available, they saw it as more affordable.

"We are continuing to pursue Gatehouse, because the savings to taxpayers and the improvements it enables us to make in our classrooms are too great to ignore or to defer," said School Board Chairman Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon). He said the depressed real estate market and low interest rates make the option attractive.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the proposal again Feb. 23 in closed session.

School officials shopped the initial plan to dozens of civic associations, parent-teacher groups and business groups last summer and fall. They won support from some, including the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. The Fairfax Education Association, which also represents teachers, recently took a stand against the original plan but is studying the revision.

The Fairfax County Coalition of Advocates for Public Schools, a parent group that claims 750 members, is opposed.

Scott Chronister, a coalition spokesman, said he was dubious of claims of major cost savings and troubled that many discussions about the purchase have been held behind closed doors.

"Where is the outreach and the public discussion?" Chronister asked. "If they are so confident that it's a great deal, let the public vote on it."

Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), another opponent, said the plan would siphon away funds that could be spent on crumbling schools.

"If it's a great time to buy a building, it's also a great time to be focusing on construction and renovation of schools," he said.

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