The city of Falls Church is pioneering a faster way to build classrooms for its students: giving control of school construction to the developer.
The Falls Church School Board announced last night that it is negotiating with Public Private Alliances, an affiliate of the Bethesda-based Clark Construction Group, to deliver a new middle school for the city.
Instead of soliciting bids for design and construction, the city would agree to work with Public Private from beginning to end and could compensate the firm in any of several ways, including land swaps, bond issues or allowing the developer to own the building while the city pays a long-term lease.
The move is the first in Virginia to test a new state law that allows municipalities to form public-private partnerships to build schools and other public facilities. City officials say the deal would speed construction and save the city money.
Opening a new school is often a drawn-out process. Generally, school districts first acquire land, then choose an architectural firm to design the school, hold the referendum and hire a construction company. Each step requires staff analysis and numerous School Board meetings.
The new law, which took effect last summer, allows school boards to streamline that process and gives districts more leeway in financing schools.
Fairfax County school officials said they are considering a similar type of partnership to build a high school in the Lorton area. In return, the builder would be given land to build a golf course and other developments.
The plan could shave as much as three years off the usual timeline for building a school, said David Watkins, director of administration and operation services for Fairfax schools.
"This is the wave of the future," said Douglas Storer of The Haskell Co., which fashioned the first such public-private partnership in the country in a Florida suburb. "I can tell you that the traditional process is not working. What public-private partnerships provide is creative solutions. They won't work in every instance, but they oftentimes provide enormous benefits."
In some Florida towns, developers retained ownership of the schools they built and lease them to a district, he said. That way, school systems avoided holding bond referendums to finance such projects.
One Falls Church city official said that although the partnerships reduce the opportunity for public input, they allow the public to react to more detailed proposals.
The partnerships also require boards to relinquish some control over designing and building schools, which Falls Church School Board Chairman Ruth Brock called a drawback. But she said Clark Construction "promised a process where they will work with us to meet our needs. They are supposed to be partners."
The school district, which serves 1,860 students, could not wait much longer for a new building, said Superintendent Mary Ellen Shaw. In just a few years, nearly every one of its four schools is expected to be beyond its capacity.
"The advantages perceived with this is that it could save time," she said. "And time is money."