The burgeoning student population in Fairfax County affects not only class sizes and the teacher’s ability to teach, but also the infrastructure – the bricks and mortar – of the individual buildings in our school system. In the case of Bailey’s Elementary School, in the Culmore area, the school enrollment is approaching 1,400, in a building that has a program capacity of slightly more than 1,000 students, according to 2011 FCPS figures. No other elementary school in the eastern portion of Cluster 3 has a projected enrollment of that size.
Clearly, some relief is needed. A two-year effort to find acreage in or near the Bailey’s attendance area to build a new school proved fruitless. Large parcels for building a traditional horizontal school simply do not exist. Nearly all of the approved density for the Bailey’s site has been used; less than 5000 square feet remains, or about an eighth of an acre. Students start eating lunch at 10:40 a.m. or earlier, cafeteria walls were taken down to accommodate more students during meals, part of the school library was turned into classrooms, and no more trailers will fit on the site.
Last fall, a possible solution was identified, one that is “out of the box” and innovative, but not without some challenges that need to be resolved. The office building at 6245 Leesburg Pike, formerly leased by Fairfax County for its Region II Human Services Center, became available. The building’s owners could not find new tenants for the building, but were not receptive to discussions of other uses. Ultimately, the building faced foreclosure and, suddenly, the bank wanted to dispose of the property. The School Board did not need to use its powers of eminent domain, but acquired the property on December 20 for $9.37 million, far below the 2012 assessed value of $16 million.
Work is underway on the plans for renovation of the five-story building to accommodate an elementary school and provide enrollment relief for Bailey’s, since it is barely a mile west of the existing school. The proposed renovation will be internal at this time; future approvals must address playground space and other outdoor activities. Mitigating the impact of an urban-style school on the surrounding residential neighborhoods most likely will be part of the discussion this Wednesday, February 5, when the school system will host a community meeting at Bailey’s Elementary School to outline renovation plans. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the Bailey’s cafeteria, 6111 Knollwood Drive in Falls Church.
The proposed vertical design of the new school is a first for Fairfax County; an urban style school was anticipated for the Tysons area as it builds out, but the students already are here in Mason District. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not, but very few solutions are perfect. It will benefit, however, from community dialogue so that questions can be addressed now, as the planning is underway.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.