There are holes in the ceiling at Fairfax County’s Falls Church High School. Heating registers are rusted and corroded, sinks are stained, walls creep with mold. And parents are fed up.
“This is a good school,” said James Stocking, father of two Falls Church students. “But we have people trying to move out of my neighborhood so their kids don’t have to go here.”
Stocking was one of more than 50 people who gathered Wednesday night to hear a presentation from UPROAR (United Parents to Restore Our Academic Resource), a new group that’s formed in part to press the school system to do something about Falls Church’s crumbling facility.
The building was built in 1967 and hasn’t been substantially renovated since. It’s not the only aging high school in the 175,000-student system in need of a major makeover — Fairfax has a huge backlog of renovation and construction projects. Without an infusion of tens of millions of dollars of cash per year, that backlog will continue to grow.
“It’s a resource issue,” Dean Tistadt, the schools’ head of facilities, told Wednesday’s crowd. He agreed the building is in dire need of a renovation, but said “we don’t have the money to do the work we need to do.”
Fairfax schools get zero dollars from the state for capital projects and approximately $155 million a year from the Board of Supervisors. The schools need another $50 million a year, Tistadt said, to keep up with facilities needs.
At Falls Church, said principal Cathy Benner, electrical wiring doesn’t support Smartboards, and the computer lab has to be jerry-rigged in order to support enough machines.
But Falls Church is 45th out of 63 schools on the system’s list of buildings to be renovated, which was established several years ago. There are no plans to begin construction at Falls Church between now and 2017, according to Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s capital improvement plan, which was released last month.
That means the earliest a renovation could be completed is 2024.
“The school is falling apart,” said Lynn Petrazzuolo, a member of PTSA and UPROAR who spoke at the meeting Wednesday. “When we heard 2024 was our new date, that was unacceptable.”
Petrazzuolo gave a virtual tour of the school, showing photographs to highlight its less-than-lovely aesthetics. She also called into question whether the school’s condition — including problems with heating and cooling systems and asbestos in peeling window caulk — poses health and safety risks for students and teachers.
Petrazzuolo also showed photos of recently renovated Woodson High, whose light and airy spaces, matching furniture and state-of-the-art technology drew audible gasps from parents.
Tistadt assured parents that while he can’t do much about the aesthetics, health and safety problems are addressed immediately by his office. “Just because something is stained doesn’t mean it is unhealthy or unsafe,” he said.
Also in attendance were school board members Sandy Evans and Patty Reed, who said they understood the concerns and are seeking solutions.
The meeting was meant to motivate parents to testify Monday, Jan. 9, when the board holds a hearing on the system’s capital improvement plan. It is part of a larger effort by UPROAR to draw attention to Falls Church, which at 1,500 students is one of the county’s smallest high schools and one of its most diverse.
Many of the highest-performing students who live in Falls Church’s attendance area already choose to go elsewhere for IB courses or other opportunities, according to UPROAR, and the school’s poor physical condition only feeds the perception that the school is an undesirable place to be.
Enrollment is a factor in determining how quickly a school gets renovated. Buildings that are bursting at the seams have an advantage over those that are under capacity, such as Falls Church.
UPROAR is also opposing a proposal for the county’s first charter school, the Fairfax Leadership Academy, which would target poor and minority students who want to go to college. The parent group fears the charter, currently under consideration by the state board of education, would siphon students from Falls Church.