Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Citizen Engagement Critical in Planning, Development

Last year, my wife Leslie and I entered the ranks of those without kids in the Falls Church City Schools. It had been a long relationship, starting in September 1995 when our daughter Meredyth began at Mt. Daniel, and ending in June 2011 when our son Tyler graduated from George Mason. Seventeen years up through the ranks of Hippos, Tigers, Huskies and Mustangs.

In November, I had a chance to visit Mt. Daniel, for a meeting of the Business in Education Partnership, a group that encourages area businesses to donate time and resources to support our schools’ teachers and to bring real-world learning experiences to our students. We met in the library, and took a break from the agenda to be entertained by a group of kindergartners who, directed by their music teacher, sang energetically and adorably.

As I listened, a couple of things ran through my mind. The first was this: Time flies. Could it really have been so many years ago that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher persuaded me to dress up in a “California Raisin” costume and surprise the kids by dancing into her classroom to the tune of “Heard It Through The Grapevine”? (It was a stunt to promote reading; I was the “raisin reader.” You kinda had to be there.) At our BIE meeting, a couple of veteran Mt. Daniel teachers remembered Meredyth, and when I said she was now a senior in college, they marveled. Time does fly.

Taxpayers in Falls Church have shown a willingness to pay for excellent schools and quality services. This will, and should, continue.

The second thing that struck me as we watched the youngsters sing was this: These kids, this year’s kindergarteners, will graduate from George Mason in 2024. Wow. That is a big number. The doors first opened at Mason in 1952. In the ensuing decades there have been numerous additions, renovations and improvements to the school, but there’s no escaping the fact that by 2024, the guts of the building will be more than 70 years old.

Another story, this one about my neighbor: He was Old Falls Church, in the Mason Class of 1965. In fact, his family goes so far back that we live in the house his father built. His dad ran a construction business, and in the late 1940s built several of the little brick Cape Cods along S. West St., including his own (which he passed on to his son, my neighbor) and ours (which we bought in 1985). My neighbor left high school to fight in Vietnam, then worked many years in blue-collar trades. I don’t suppose he ever earned a big salary, but every day jumped in his pickup truck and was off to work – Hechinger’s for a long time, then at a warehouse in Maryland. He was very handy with a saw, built a kid-sized picnic table for Meredyth and Tyler when they were young. We never talked politics, but he plainly was a patriot. Every day he flew the American flag on his porch. He told funny stories.

But as the years wore on, there were health problems. Some, probably, were service-related. He became more withdrawn, eventually wouldn’t come to the door when we knocked. He became unable to work, and his house and grounds, previously tidy, began looking frayed. Occasionally I’d mow his yard, but I never found time to camp on his doorstep and insist we have a neighborly chat, like we’d done in years past. I’ll do that when my son’s off to college, I said. I’ll have more time then.

But last April, we learned that our neighbor had died, alone, in his house. In August, his ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He was 64.

In the next 10 weeks, leading up to the May 1 Council and School Board elections, I hope we will have a vigorous and substantive community conversation about the range of challenges and opportunities facing Falls Church. We especially must talk about our duty to meet infrastructure needs – schools for kids in the Class of 2024 and beyond; water delivery and stormwater management; a City Hall, library and other civic facilities that will more efficiently serve citizens’ needs.

Meeting these civic obligations, and others, will cost money. Taxpayers in Falls Church have shown a willingness to pay for excellent schools and quality services. This will, and should, continue. But one measure of a community’s strength is its awareness that there are those among us like my neighbor, for whom money was tight. Mindful of them, and of all who contribute to the quality of life we enjoy, we should move beyond merely general talk of economic development. We need to engage citizens in supporting a planning and development process that will meet specific targets for new revenues from mixed-use and commercial sources, so the responsibility for sustaining our City and schools is more broadly and equitably shared.




Phil Duncan is chair of the BIE Partnership, a member of the Economic Development Authority, and a candidate for F.C. City Council.