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Hess Gets School Board OK on TJ Elementary Expansion

Falls Church City Public Schools last month selected Hess Construction + Engineering Services to manage the construction of an expansion to Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. The arrangement is still pending the completion of contract negotiations, but the process is “going very well,” FCCPS Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones told the News-Press, and a contract should be approved by the end of this month.

In its Request for Proposal this summer, FCCPS invited contractors to submit plans to expand the South Oak Street school to meet rising enrollment. Those plans were to include a kitchen and cafeteria expansion and a three-floor addition to the school with 12-15 classrooms, and address other utility work needed.

Proposals were submitted to the School Board-appointed Review and Negotiating Team charged with narrowing the applicants for further review by the Architect Selection Advisory Committee, a group which oversees education capital projects.

The committee was composed “to make sure every aspect of what we are building has a specialist there,” Jones said, adding that the committee was “very representative.” It includes community members, as well as teachers and staff members from across several departments.

The appointed Review and Negotiating Team, along with construction consulting firm ARCADIS, narrowed the field of proposals down to three. Those three companies were invited to the school.

Among the priorities of the committee were that the expansion included ample classroom and storage space, such as for books and musical instruments, and that it was built with “LEED elements” to minimize any negative environmental impact, Jones said.

Jones said the committee knew it could get an expansion with 12 classrooms for its $5 million request, but ideally wanted 15. Two of the three finalist proposals were able to accommodate that number of classrooms.

The committee’s final decision was based on which concept for the expansion its members liked best.

“Both were excellent designs, but they were just different,” Jones said.

The plan Hess submitted includes a 1,600 square-foot addition to the cafeteria, and a 21,000 square-foot, three-floor classroom addition with 15 classrooms and three special education rooms. On each level of the classroom expansion, five classrooms are situated around a common area, which Jones said the committee found appealing. The plan also includes a science lab, an outdoor learning space, a blacktop for play, and space for outdoor cafeteria seating.

The Gaithersburg-based company has worked on several education construction projects locally, including its $84 million LEED Gold-certified Washington Lee High School construction project in Arlington.

The Hess plan was recommended by the ASAC committee at the Nov. 8 Falls Church City School Board meeting and approved by the board that night.

Once the contract gets signed with Hess, the project will enter a design phase. While the general footprint of the proposal will stay the same, the committee will have “a tremendous amount” of say in what the finished expansion will look like, Jones said.

The school will remain open during construction, and according to Jones, the proposals had to take that into account – which means plans to consider student safety, both in creating a safe staging area for the construction and vetting workers involved with the project, and addressing issues of construction noise.

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held this summer for the project, but construction should begin in the spring of next year and be completed by fall 2013.

The expansion construction – which will allow the school to get rid of extra trailers that now house classrooms and bring fifth graders into TJ who would have otherwise attended Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School – is the first phase of the two-phase project, the second including renovations to other areas of the school and the wiring of a WiFi network to the school.

Jones said that open meetings will be planned to keep the community informed and accept input. Community members are invited to use the question and answer section of the expansion project website hosted at fccps.org to have their concerns addressed.

Already some of the youngest members of the community have made their concerns about the project known. Students in Kelly Marple’s third-grade class wrote letters to FCCPS officials last month regarding the expansion. Their letters drew a special visit from Jones, who walked them all around the proposed footprint of the expansion and answered their questions.

And what was chief amongst student concerns?

“The biggest issue for children is their play space,” Jones said.