The Falls Church City Council meeting in its work session Tuesday agreed with the suggestion of Mayor Nader Baroukh to form a small task force with representatives of the stakeholder parties to hammer out an equitable, possibly shared-use resolution to the future of the City-owned Child Development Center property.
An earlier proposal was to deny the Easter Seals Foundation a lease renewal on the eight-classroom building, forcing it to move its ages six-months-to-five years day care program. That was in order to allow for an expansion of the City schools’ pre-school and family literacy programs, but it ran into stiff opposition, and the City Council determined tonight that it is now looking for some kind of alternative.
The task force suggested by Baroukh would include members of the City schools’ community, the City Council and staff and the Easter Seals group.
Council member Ira Kaylin categorically denied that any quid pro quo deal had been hammered out by some Council members to allow for the sale of federally-subsidized “Qualified School Construction” bonds (QSCB) for an expansion and renovation of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in exchange for no further new school construction for the remainder of the decade.
That suggestion, floated by Council member Robin Gardner at Tuesday’s meeting, would, she surmised, have required the complete takeover of the Child Development Center by the schools.
In a related development, a community forum on the plans for renovation and expansion of Jefferson Elementary, in advance of a June 13 groundbreaking of the project, was held last Thursday.
At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin and Mt. Daniel Elementary Principal Cathy Halayko were both present, and Dr. Berlin conceded that use of Child Development Center facilities could be delayed until the fall of 2012.
She also said that the Mt. Daniel programs she hopes can be located there would require five of the eight classrooms at the site, leaving an opening for a shared solution with the Easter Seals program.
Mayor Baroukh also suggested that that facility might be expanded in a cost-effective way to help facilitate a shared agreement.
Discussions in the hallways at City Hall among City residents with children who have been placed in the Easter Seals day care program included the fact that it is the only one of its kind in Falls Church that is not connected with churches that have strong evangelical bents. The parents commented that they would have to drive prohibitive distances to put their children into an acceptable program if the Easter Seals option were to be terminated.
At last week’s community forum held at Jefferson Elementary, details of the projected use of the $3 million in zero-interest QSCB bonds for renovation and expansion efforts at the school were presented, and citizens were invited to comment.
The QSCB bonds are part of a federal economic stimulus package distributed throughout the country via individual states to local school districts. Falls Church was one of only 33 school divisions in Virginia to secure awards in the $229 million round.
At the community meeting last Thursday, May 26, Superintendent Berlin told parents and local residents that Thomas Jefferson was facing pressure from rising enrollment and, with the award of the bonds, it would be able to begin a $5.95 million project to expand and renew the school.
In the last ten years alone, the school population in Falls Church City grew by 17 percent, she noted.
Development of the site will run in two phases. The first will expand the school, adding 12 new classrooms, replacing trailers with purpose-built classrooms and increasing the size of the cafeteria to cope with an expected increase in enrollment as the city and the region continues to attract new residents with young families.
The development will also enable fifth graders who would have gone to Mary Ellen Henderson to attend Thomas Jefferson. This first phase is expected to be completed by 2013.
The second phase will renovate other communal areas, including the library, gym and some of the older classrooms and introduce a powerful new WiFi network. This network will be powerful enough to serve not just the students in the school but also to provide WiFi access to low-income students in nearby homes.
Pursuit of the QSCB option was the F.C. School Board’s top priority this fall, Berlin noted.
“We are thrilled by and grateful for the state’s decision,” said School Board Chair, Joan Wodiska. “A year from now, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School will hit capacity. Our City needed the tremendous financial opportunity and assistance afforded through a QSCB to meet growing student populations, create a 21st century learning community, and eliminate trailers. The state’s announcement comes at a critical time for the City and will save our taxpayers an estimated $1.25 million just on interest payments.”
“This was a team effort. By working together – the School Board, City Council, Planning Commission, and the Long Range Financial Advisory Group – produced a decisive victory for City residents. I am proud of our work and deeply grateful for everyone’s contribution. This is a genuine community victory,” Wodiska said.
Some parents at the meeting raised concerns about the effect on children of all the construction work in the school and were told that throughout the process there would continue to be safe places to eat and play.
Local residents at the meeting also raised questions about the effects of expansion on parking in the street, noise and disruption during construction, particularly on Saturday mornings, and the potential loss of green space, including a comment that “the only large open space we have in the city of Falls Church is this one (the fields at the school). This is our Central Park.”
“It defies common sense to put a building into our largest open space when we have other options. I really don’t care about the construction. I don’t care about the noise or anything else in the next three or four years. I care whether, ten years from now, we have preserved our largest open space in Falls Church,” the commenter said.
TJ Principal Robert Palermo said he welcomed the development and congratulated the School Board and the City for their efforts and the care being put
into the design.
“We need more space. Considerations were given to the best way to create that space. This was the project selected. I hope there is as much green space as possible for the kids to play and for the community to use also, as I know it gets heavy use after hours,” he said.
There will be a formal groundbreaking ceremony on June 13. Persons interested in participating can join the Architectural Selection Advice Committee considering the educational or environmental implications of prospective designs for the project.
(Ben Farrington contributed to this report).