Fairfax County unveils an ambitious plan to renovate aging schools, build two more

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 7:59 PM

In preparation for a projected enrollment boom, Fairfax County education officials unveiled a plan Thursday to renovate a slew of aging schools at a cost of $805 million through the next decade.

The plan also funds renovations at 27 schools, as well as the construction of one middle school and one elementary school.

An unexpected savings of $31 million from lower than estimated construction costs for recent projects will help the district accelerate its plan - which is awaiting School Board approval - moving schools up the district's renovation list by several years.

Fairfax is in the middle of its most ambitious boundary study in recent memory, prompted by explosive growth and the impending closure of Clifton Elementary and Pimmit Hills Alternative High schools. The district expects to grow by 2,900 students in the next year.

Such growth, spread unevenly across the county, has forced officials to consider both projected enrollment numbers and aging infrastructure in determining where limited capital improvement funds are allocated.

District officials point to Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston as an illustration of why schools need to be renovated. Classrooms in Sunrise Valley are divided by temporary walls, a relic of the "open plan" schools of the 1970s. Fifth- and sixth-graders are taught in a temporary classroom, and surplus technological equipment is stored in the same room as the school's kiln.

"This comes as great news for us," said the school's principal, Elizabeth English, who will help plan the renovation before it begins in 2013.

The district's renovation list, which includes schools from across the county, was established by an independent study several years ago and will not be revised under the current capital improvement program.

Some parents, whose children attend schools at the bottom of that queue, have expressed disappointment at the long lag between the announcement of the capital improvement plan and slated start dates for renovations.

But officials say the renovations, which are funded largely with $155 million annual installments from the county's Board of Supervisors, must be done incrementally.

"There's not a single school on this list that shouldn't be renovated today. But parents and teachers have to be patient until we have the money," said Dean Tistadt, the district's chief operating officer.

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