Falls Church residents appear divided on whether the city should move George Mason Junior-Senior High School from its site on Rte. 7 to the quieter, more residential section of Hillwood Avenue, site of the former Whittier school.
It appeared at a hearing last week that younger residents favored a move to the Whittier school site while older citizens tended to be in opposition.
Located in Fairfax County just west of the Falls Church city line, George Mason enrolls more than half of the city's public school students, about 650 sixth through 12th graders. The 35-year-old school sits on a 42-acre parcel of land at the intersection of Leesburg Pike (Rte. 7) and Haycock Road.
With the scheduled widening of both roads and the June opening of the Metro station behind the school, city officials, parents and educators are concerned that the location will be too congested and unsafe for students.
Last December, the Washington architectural firm of Cannon/Faulkner released a report outlining measures to combat growing congestion at George Mason's site, as well as ways to build a school at the 17-acre Whittier site. The firm's strongest recommendation was for the city to purchase the Whittier site from Fairfax County, tear down the existing buildings and construct a three-story school, for about $25 million, that would span Hillwood Avenue.
At last week's meeting, Falls Church City Manager Anthony Griffin said a move to Whittier would depend on two things: whether the city could agree with Fairfax County on the purchase of Whittier and the use of the adjoining James Lee playing fields, and what price the city could get for all or part of the George Mason property.
"We're fairly well assured the property is valuable," Griffin said. "It's not unreasonable to assume it would return something in the range of $30 or $40 million."
Griffin said it's possible the city could sell the George Mason parcel for $40 million, use the proceeds to build a new school at Whittier and still have about $15 million left over.
"That assumption, in my view, is clouded with uncertainty," said Jack Schick, the first speaker at last week's hearing, who said he opposed the move. Schick said "it boggles the mind" that the city might give up the space at George Mason for a site at Whittier less than half the size.
Lillian Fry, who agreed that Whittier was undersized, said she was also skeptical about working out arrangements with Fairfax. "Given the poor relationship with Fairfax County in the past, I don't think we can count on them," Fry said.
But George Thoms, George Mason principal, spoke in support of the move. "The Whittier site strikes me as being a significantly safer place," he said, arguing that a new school could be made both energy efficient and designed with current needs in mind.
Linda Tarr, the mother of two elementary school children, said she favored the move because increasing traffic and development at George Mason simply made it unsafe for students. "I don't feel our children should be the buffer zone," she said.
James Kelley, noting that speakers with schoolchildren tended to support a move, while older residents tended to speak against it, said, "I fear what we have is a generation gap."
Kelley, the father of two young children, said he favored a move to Whittier and urged city officials to "go about it in a very careful way."
Several speakers urged city officials to go ahead and try to purchase the 17-acre Whittier site before reaching a final decision, arguing that the property may not be available for long. The site, which was declared surplus last December by the Fairfax County School Board, is estimated to cost about $3 million.
According to the Cannon/Faulkner report, the success of a school at Whittier depends on whether or not the city could arrange with Fairfax to use the 8-acre fields of the James Lee Community Center.
Falls Church School Board Chairman Ellen Salsbury said that if the city opts to move to Whittier, such a move is at least five years away. In the meantime, she said, some measures will need to be taken at George Mason.
"We're going to really have to address the pedestrian safety issue there," she said. "That's not something we can wait five years to do."
Falls Church officials have said they don't know how or when they will proceed. "We've heard the public," said Mayor Carol DeLong. "We're not going to drop the matter."