By Lou Mauro
In February of this year, I sent to the responsible Falls Church City and F.C. school officials an email memorandum explaining the reasons why I believe the City should not authorize construction of a new high school to replace the existing George Mason High School.
On March 5, 2015, F.C. School’s communications department addressed my memorandum by way of its morning announcements function, and on May 8, the News-Press published an article that originally appeared in the The Lasso, George Mason’s student-run digital paper, which reported the results of its investigation of the suggestions I made for converting space not used for classrooms into classrooms. My point-by-point reply to both appears as a comment on the Lasso article in the online version of the News-Press.
With a few exceptions, the morning announcements feature and the Lasso investigation observed that the spaces I recommended for conversion to classroom use are currently being used for other purposes. That is not a responsive or constructive answer. In fact, that is precisely the point. Accordingly, following my suggestions could still add at least 20 classrooms to George Mason by converting space currently used for other purposes into classrooms. These proposals should be studied honestly and objectively with a positive attitude rather than turf-protecting reflex negativity. Moreover, if supposed overcrowding is a major reason for the need for a new high school, where is the relevant data to support that assertion? For example, what is the square footage per student at George Mason? And how does that compare to high schools in Fairfax and Arlington?
I am not an architect or an engineer. But neither, to the best of my knowledge, are any of the council or school board members, nor the city manager or superintendent, nor any of the persons interviewed in the Lasso article. In my view, space used for something else should be converted into classrooms rather than smothering taxpayers with the estimated $105 million cost of a new school built for the convenience of developers that would put young students at risk in an urban commercial environment. (Because of the secrecy surrounding the “unsolicited” proposal by Clark Construction, it is impossible for mere citizen taxpayers to evaluate the possibility of a “free” high school. It is axiomatic that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Without knowing more, suffice to say for now that whatever the developers want in return for building a “free” school will not be worth it because we simply do not need a new high school.) At the very least, before proceeding further with any proposal, reasonable suggestions such as those I have made should be evaluated by independent professional architects and engineers with no ties to the City or the school administration, as part of an overall study comparing the costs of repairing and renovating George Mason against the costs of tearing it down (possibly along with razing a barely 10-year-old middle school!) and building a brand new high school.
Construction of a new high school is a want, not a need. Considering our current fiscal situation and non-school capital improvement needs, we simply cannot afford it. Why do Arlington and Fairfax Counties, jurisdictions with far greater resources, renovate high schools (e.g., Yorktown and George C. Marshall) rather than build completely new ones? Moreover, the school administration is constantly touting how well our schools are performing educationally. If the high school, despite its age, is still producing high quality education, why do we want a new one? Either the school performs its job superbly and we don’t need a new one, or its quality of education is adversely affected because it is not new and we need a new one for that reason. But you can’t have it both ways. If a new high school is not needed for educational reasons, all formal consideration of building a new school should cease immediately, and that time and effort should be devoted to capital improvements that are both needed and affordable.
Neither the morning announcements special nor the Lasso investigation addressed the equally important problem of placing a middle school and a high school in the midst of an urban commercialized environment. Children in 6th through 12th grade are simply too young to be subjected to the myriad distractions and risks such a location would present. Would you want your child to attend a school located in the middle of Ballston? Or Tysons? I think it is derelict of the council and school officials to even be considering such a proposition. If they were to approve such a proposal for the convenience of developers I believe it would be so irresponsible as to approach misfeasance. Anything untoward that might happen to a student would be on their hands.