Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Vote ‘Yes’ – Good Schools Are a Community Value

A “yes” vote on the Mt. Daniel Referendum is the right choice. The need to alleviate overcrowding is acute. The need to fix security, safety and accessibility issues in a 62-year old building is clear. And the need to do this now – at historically low interest rates – is what makes a “yes” vote the smart choice. Due to its age, most of Mt. Daniel does not meet ADA requirements, and 85 percent of the building has no sprinklers. Five- and six-year old children have no real library and no music room.

How can this happen in Falls Church? The answer is skyrocketing enrollment for the past 10 years in response to our schools’ stellar reputation at the state, regional, and national levels. Education specialists will tell you that the K-2 years are some of the most vital. And we need those years to help children enter a division that, based on last year’s Virginia SOLs, was number 1 in Reading and Writing, number 2 in History and Math, and number 3 in Science. And that’s against 132 divisions statewide.

As we move second grade to Mt. Daniel, we also have to remember that this is not just a second grade solution; this Referendum will help solve overcrowding at both elementary schools. This is a solution for 50 percent of our schools and 50 percent of our grades.

Mt. Daniel is part of a long-range plan for all our schools. In the past several years, we have worked to re-align grades at GM and MEH. Now we need to do the same at TJ and Mt. Daniel. These projects will clear the decks so we can continue and intensify our focus on a new high school. A “yes” vote for Mt. Daniel will not affect planning for a new George Mason.

What would this Mt. Daniel project cost us as taxpayers? At worst, if the Council decided to fund 100 percent of it through debt, it would cost (based on an average $700,000 house) an additional 3¢ on the tax rate, or $210/year. That’s $17.50/month or 56¢/day – less than half the cost of a tall coffee at Starbucks. But the City is looking at putting water sale money into the mix, which could bring the cost down to 1¢, or $70/year, $5.83/month, less than 19¢/day. We also have $4.2 million from developer proffers already dedicated to school building costs, which could bring it down even further. With historically low interest rates, rarely does the right choice come at such a low cost.

Some seem to think that this vote is about spending $15.6 million or spending nothing. It’s not. We have to do something to address needs at Mt. Daniel. Doing nothing is not an option.
Some ask, “What is Plan B?” The way to look at it is to say that the Plan A we have now is the plan that the schools and city both agree is the most efficient, effective, and financially responsible for dealing with explosive growth in the early grades. In other words, any Plan B would be sub-optimal, less efficient, and less fiscally responsible. You know what you’ll get if you vote for the Referendum – a good school at a good price to meet an acute need.

Some are concerned about what effect Mt. Daniel will have on getting a new high school. The answer is a “yes” vote for Mt. Daniel will not affect construction planning or financial planning for GMHS. The George Mason project will involve developing some of the high school land to help pay for the school. Mt. Daniel has nothing to do with that. The high school plan is being worked on now, in very concrete terms, and has been for all of 2014.

And the Mason plan is not just a school effort. This is city-wide and community-wide. We will all work together over the coming few years to come up with a vision for the high school and for the adjacent commercial property that fulfills Falls Church’s vision for both the school and the community. This will be the most complicated and largest capital project in the City’s history, resulting in a high school that will stand for most of the 21st century and commercial development that will bring benefits to the City in perpetuity.

My opinion is that a “no” vote will bode poorly for the high school. We will have to do multi-year projects at Mt. Daniel that will be less optimal, less efficient, and could actually cost more. We need to pass this $15.6 million referendum for our littlest kids so we can move on to the much more significant high school project. I think a vote for Mt. Daniel is a vote for the new high school.

Please join me on Nov. 4 to vote “yes” for Mt. Daniel!

 


John D. Lawrence, although a member of the Falls Church City School Board, is writing in his capacity as a private citizen and the views expressed are not an official position of the School Board.