After a lengthy discussion Tuesday night, the Falls Church School Board deadlocked, 3-3, in a vote on whether to discontinue the current Public-Private Education Partnership approach to developing the 36-acres of West End school campus property.
The matter will now come before the Falls Church City Council for a vote on Monday night, and as Tom Horn, the legal counsel to the School Board, stated Tuesday, if either body — the City or the Schools — votes to terminate the partnership process, then it is terminated.
The alternative, the termination of the current process and a “de-coupling” of the educational facilities development from the 10 acres that have been designated for commercial development, was strongly advocated Tuesday night by School Board members Erin Gill, who made the motion, and her colleagues Phil Reitinger and Lawrence Webb.
On the other side of the vote were School Board chair Justin Castillo, vice chair John Lawrence and Margaret Ward. Michael Ankuma was absent. Lawrence conceded that he felt the decoupling option would be inevitable, however.
The action Tuesday was the first official meeting following a special joint work session of the School Board and Council Thursday morning, when the first consideration of a significant departure from the process to develop the 36-acre parcel was discussed in an open, public session.
Since annexing the land from Fairfax County as part of the deal to sell the Falls Church water system, the Council and School Board have proceeded on a path to develop the land to include a new high school and expanded middle school, and up to 10 acres of commercial development, with a public-private educational partnership (PPEA) approach that seeks the coordinated development of the schools and the commercial component.
However, at today’s meeting, the two bodies face the need to decide to formally proceed further with two developers who responded to initial overtures to take on the project. So, an alternative approach, the prospect of a change of direction, namely, to “decouple” the school development from the commercial development components, became the subject of a lengthy discussion.
But whichever way the entities go, they are faced with a tight schedule, based on the needs for a new high school to be completed by September 2020 (already set back a full year from earlier plans), and the requirement for a public referendum to authorize what has been projected as a $112 million cost for the school construction.
While there is risk with either approach, it was conceded Thursday, the prospect of mitigating the risk and the burden of the new debt (assuming the voters of Falls Church approve a referendum now being proposed for March 2017) will enter into the decision to decouple the components of the project, or not.
Under the current PPEA arrangement, the school development would be complemented by the sale or lease of the commercial component of the project, with the latter aimed at reducing the cost to taxpayers of the new school.
So, a major factor is what the 10 acres that would be set apart for commercial development would bring in the market place. Under the decoupling plan, the land would be delineated as a portion of the total land later this year, and put out for sale or long term lease.
Falls Church Planning Director Jim Snyder said that allowing considerable density on the land (from 2.5 to 4.5 “floor to area” ratios) and locating the commercial component closer to the Haycock Road and Route 7 intersection would probably be the preferred approach (although there are some who insist that placing that land closer to the West Falls Church Metro station would be preferable.)
Timing of the two components, if decoupled, would also be key. For the school construction, Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said that the schools would be able to seek a developer with major qualifications and experience on building schools, instead of relying on one of the two current bidders on the project who will be responsible for both the school construction and the commercial development.
She said that “instructional quality and student safety” are the two key requirements of school construction, adding that the schools’ HVAC systems are all already at their “end of life” stages.
The impact on taxpayers of the cost of the school construction and the mitigation of that cost by commercial development was the subject of much of last Thursday morning’s discussion. An important element of that is timing: when the bonds are sold and when funds from the commercial property sale come in.
In order for the school to be built by September 2020, when Dr. Jones said it is absolutely required, the bonds would need to be sold to allow for construction to begin next year. Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields said that it would be possible for the sale price of the commercial component to be established by next February, prior to the bond referendum, so that citizens would have an idea of how much mitigation that price would relieve the cost of the debt.
Under ideal conditions, Shields suggested, the overall impact of the new debt could be held to five cents on the real estate tax rate, notwithstanding what the market value of the commercial land would be by next February. He said that would include the fact that the debt would be incurred in two major parts.
Former City Council and School Board member Kieran Sharpe told the School Board Tuesday that he favored delaying further action under the present PPEA arrangement on grounds of affordability and confidentiality issues.
Gill and Reitinger said they voted in favor of decoupling Tuesday because they didn’t want to leave that decision to the City Council this Monday. “We need to take the first vote. We need to own this decision because it is about building a school,” Gill said.
“We should not just kick this can down the road,” Reitinger added. He said that one weakness in the present process was that only two companies replied to the proposal, adding “I’m not certain about this, but I am 99 percent certain the current process is wrong. We ought to own our decision.”
Gill said the community needs to move to a more open process aimed at winning a broad base of support for passing a bond referendum for the new school.