News

At 1st Candidate Forum, Mt. Daniel Deferral Draws Much Commentary

FIRST-TIME FALLS CHURCH City Council candidate Letty Hardi speaks from the podium at Tuesday night’s candidates forum at the American Legion Hall while (seated, left to right) School Board candidate Phil Reitinger, Mayor David Tarter and School Board candidate Erin Gill look on. (Photo: News-Press)
FIRST-TIME FALLS CHURCH City Council candidate Letty Hardi speaks from the podium at Tuesday night’s candidates forum at the American Legion Hall while (seated, left to right) School Board candidate Phil Reitinger, Mayor David Tarter and School Board candidate Erin Gill look on. (Photo: News-Press)

The next steps forward for the Falls Church City Schools seeking to expand and renovate the Mt. Daniel Elementary campus two blocks outside the City limits in Fairfax County became a major issue of discussion among the nine City Council and School Board candidates who assembled at the American Legion post on N. Oak for the first group forum heading into the November election season.

Shock and disappointment have ensued in Falls Church since the School Board was forced to seek a deferral until September of the Fairfax Planning Commission action to approve the plan after a disastrous June 24 hearing before that group had turned almost all the commissioners against it.

At the candidate forum Tuesday at the American Legion Hall, School Board chair Justin Castillo, who showed up as a candidate for re-election when the School Board meeting was postponed, said that the June 24 deferral indicated that the Fairfax Planning Commission “needed more time for an additional review.” He added, “That’s all we can say right now. I hope for a satisfactory outcome.”

Three citizens seeking election to the School Board who were present, and who are among the nine total candidates seeking three School Board seats this fall were also vocal on the subject. Erin Gill, Jacob Radcliff and Philip Reitinger each spoke out, as did Council candidate Letty Hardi, one of five Council candidates seeking a three slots now up for election, and incumbent Councilman Phil Duncan.

Asked the disposition of the City’s bond sale to finance the Mt. Daniel effort in the wake of the delay – which will set work on the project back a full year if it does eventually get approved – Duncan said he’d conferred with the City Chief Financial Officer Richard LeCondre and “as long as there is progress of some kind, there will be no alarm among the lenders.”

But he added that if there is no progress after a year, “We’d need to make new plans and perhaps do a Plan B.” The bond money, he noted, has to be for a very specific delineated purpose.

Reitinger said that if the City thinks it may be forced to a Plan B, that it should be added as an option in the “request for proposal” being prepared this week (see article elsewhere this issue) for development of the newly annexed 40 acres of land where the high school and middle school are now located.
Radcliff noted that the Fairfax Planning Commission had become “pretty hostile” at its June 24 meeting, and that “we need clearer communication” with all parties involved.

Hardi, as a Council candidate and parent of three children in the Falls Church school system, said that “people are disappointed by what happened” and “may feel hoodwinked.”

She added that the City is still having to pay debt service on the Mt. Daniel bond sale. “It’s not cheap,” she said. “We need a contingency plan so we don’t waste the money.”

Mayor Tarter did not comment on the subject at the event. Contacted by phone yesterday, F.C. School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said that her office is working diligently to prepare for the Sept. 17 deferral date before the Fairfax Planners, and that emails with questions have been received by Planning Commissioners indicating they are studying the extensive, detailed report on the project that the School Board presented shortly after the June 24 meeting.

It was only nine days between when they received the report and the July 15 Planning Commission meeting, she said, which did not provide enough time for the report to be digested. She said efforts are also underway for a one-on-one meeting with Dranesville District Planning Commissioner John Ulfelder before the September 17 next meeting date.

Candidates who did not appear at Tuesday’s event included Council candidates Johannah Barry and Sam Mabry and School Board candidates Kieran Sharpe, Mark Kaye, Allison Kutchma and Becky Smerdon. The News-Press has received reports that School Board candidate Margaret Kajeckas is withdrawing from the race.

Independent Green candidate for the State Senate Terry Modglin, a member of the American Legion post, also appeared and spoke.