F.C. Schools Learn Moving Into N. Cherry St. Will Cost $2 Million

The Falls Church School Board received some unexpected and sobering news last week, when the conclusions of a consultant found that, if the Schools were to make any use of the City-owned Child Development Center site on N. Cherry St., there would need to be more than $2.2 million in renovations, first.

All during the last year’s consideration of the School Board budget, especially in the face of relentlessly-growing enrollment, the School Board felt it had the option of utilizing that location for pre-school programs overflowing from Mt. Daniel Elementary. The Falls Church City Council encouraged the Schools to pursue that option as an alternative to sinking $17.3 million into an expansion of Mt. Daniel.

There was no thought given to the cost of making the Child Development (CDC) site ready, should the lease to its current users, the Easter Seals Foundation, not be renewed, making it available for the schools. A nominal move-in cost of $50,000 was thrown into the budget, even as a lot of citizen concern for the sudden refusal to renew the Easter Seals’ lease arose, and talks were underway about a possible shared use of the site.

But new School Board chair Patrick Riccards told the City Council at its work session Monday that the Schools had not previously had the opportunity to take a closer look at the site. Finally doing so through the work of a consultant in June, Riccards reported Monday that the examination showed that to bring the building up to strict state code requirements would involve, effectively, a gutting and wholesale renovation.

With this news, all the talk of a task force to examine shared use of the CDC site suddenly flew out the window. But it had already been determined that “shared use” would be wholly unacceptable for the Schools’ needs, since the best the Easter Seals folk would consider was making three classrooms at the basement level available. The Schools need at least seven classrooms, Riccards said.

When some on the City Council began hesitating over the news, Riccards reminded them in strong words that the Schools have no choice but to make adequate classroom space available for all students who enroll.

“We have to serve these students. We don’t have an option,” he said. “Providing special education pre-school programs is mandated by state law.” He noted many programs have already been reduced to a half-day, but that the demands continue to increase as enrollment continues to grow.

Riccards summed up the three options available to accommodate the growth, as pre-school, kindergarten and first and second grade capacity is expected to top out in the 2013-2014 school year:

1. $17.3 million for the long-term expansion of Mt. Daniel,

2. $2.2 million for the renovation of the CDC

3. $500,000 up front for the acquisition of temporary classroom trailers, passable for three to five years.

The Council discussed the third option in the context of offsetting the cost by renewing the Easter Seals’ lease of the CDC for some kind of bridge period, charging $2,000 a month in rent (the CDC currently pays $1). That option, the Council agreed, will depend on what the Easters Seals says it can afford.

(It was noted that while strict state code requirements make the $2.2 million in renovations there necessary, the CDC building is still adequate for the pre-school programs that the Easter Seals provide).

Other moving parts in play are the length of a renewed lease, and the prospect of an outright sale of the property to help cover the cost of one of the other options. In total, including the tennis courts there, the City owns three acres at that prime site.

Riccards said that classroom trailers – other jurisdictions refer to them in jest as “learning cottages” or “instructional chalets” – as a solution are “a band-aid at best.” He noted that a third of classrooms in Fairfax County now are in trailers, calling them inadequate, nonetheless, and an option “of last resort.”

The City Council is expected to take up the question of the lease on the CDC property at its meeting this coming Monday night.