Although there is a $15.6 million price tag on the school bond referendum City of Falls Church voters are being asked to approve on next Tuesday’s ballot, should the measure pass, the result may represent almost no burden on taxpayers to expand and renovate the City’s Mt. Daniel Elementary School.
Virtually the entire $15.6 million will likely be paid by a combination of $9.6 million proceeds from the City’s sale of its water system earlier this year and $4.2 million from concessions offered by developers of three new large-scale mixed use projects here.
City Councilman Phil Duncan made this assertion following the vote this Monday night to approve how the total of $20.5 million in cash for the sale of the water system will be deployed. By a 6-1 vote, the Council allocated up to $10 million for investment in its pension fund (with an average yield of $750,000 annually) and the other half to a combination of long-term capital improvements and about a million to immediate short term capital improvements use.
Duncan’s comments Monday echoed what he said at a town hall forum sponsored by the Citizens for a Sustainable City last Thursday at the American Legion Hall. There, he said, “This is where I believe a majority of Council members stand: $9.2 million in water sale proceeds and $4.2 million in schools proffer money from the Rushmark, Lincoln and Northgate developments will be deployed in a manner that can pay virtually all the costs of of Mt. Daniel expansion…Doing the Mt. Daniel project will not, by itself, cause Council to increase the property tax rate next April.”
A compelling case was made at that town hall by F.C. Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones for why the expansion of Mt. Daniel is required, driven by explosive enrollment growth and also by the aging and shortcomings of the facility itself.
Currently over capacity by over 100 students, with no music room and no library, with 85 percent of the building lacking a sprinkler system and no Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, the building now constructed in the early 1950s is woefully inadequate. Classes are currently being crowded into temporary trailers, which are also eating into recreational spaces.
With the new construction, the building will grow from 21,316 square feet to 65,820 with new classrooms, a new gymnasium, a separate new cafeteria, a new media center and new day care offices. The expansion will permit the second grade to relocate from Thomas Jefferson School, which is now also overcrowded, to Mt. Daniel.
The construction will be designed to last 50 years, and to meet projected growth numbers of students in the system for 20 years.
No one at the forum last week denied that the Mt. Daniel school improvements are needed, but opposition to the referendum centered solely on mistrust of the City Council and School Board, as echoed by former Council members Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry. Kaylin cited a “process problem” of “deficiencies in internal controls,” but was not more specific.
As a couple others echoed that sentiment, that the problem was not the need for improvements but a deeper distrust in the City government, moderator Ken Feltman, chair of the City’s Republican Committee, chimed in that “paranoia is filling the room.”
As School Board chair Susan Kearney added, there was no discussion of what the cost would be of failing to make the improvements with students still piling into the highly-respected system. She also noted how other recent projects at Mary Ellen Henderson middle school and Thomas Jefferson elementary had come in “on time and under budget.”
“There is no gross mismanagement going on,” Duncan chimed in, citing the City’s AA-plus bond rating and annual audits.
Former Council member Jane Scully spoke to the safety consequences of continuing in buildings constructed in 1952.
Long-time pro-school activist Sharon Schoeller said she’d attended every one of the meetings preparing for the referendum, and had total confidence in the process.
Edie Smolinsky said in her 42 years in the City, the schools “are the most important thing I pay taxes for.”
Two former mayors of the City, Brian O’Connor and Carol DeLong, were in attendance with long records of support for the schools, along with former vice mayor Marty Meserve.
Long-time teacher in the Falls Church system, former vice mayor and current Planning Commissioner Lindy Hockenberry said “the basis for this project was very, very well thought out. With interest rates where they are now, this is a very good time to be doing this. It is important to the future of the children and the community, both.”
As for Monday’s vote on the deployment of the cash proceeds from the water sale, only Dan Sze dissented with an abstention. The vote came after month of intense deliberations on the subject.
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly reported Mayor David Tarter voted against the deployment of the cash proceeds from the water sale.