It’s been a month since the decision was made to end the ill-fated “private public educational partnership” approach to developing the City of Falls Church’s 36 acres of prime real estate at its west end, but with the clock ticking for needed action on a new or renovated high school and the necessity of a public referendum to OK it, there has been no substantial action taken, and may not be until well into next month, the F.C. Council and City Manager Wyatt Shields shared thoughts about at the Council meeting Monday night.
It was agreed that the first step of the new “decoupled” process will need to be a joint meeting of the City Council and School Board, but in now the dog days of summer, available dates are slim. Shields announced that the School Board will not be available for a meeting between July 23 and August 7, and with its important meeting with the Fairfax Planning Commission on the fate of the Mt. Daniel School renovation coming on July 21, it was, he said, unlikely they could meet until after August 7. That still has to be scheduled.
But as Council member David Snyder pointed out “until there can be some serious economic development rain making that we’ve not been able to get so far, we’re not going to have an idea of what we can get out of the property to offset the cost of a new or renovated school.” He added that serious efforts to get the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Northern Virginia Graduate Center into the conversation are also key to that. Councilman Dan Sze said he concurred, saying it can’t be “episodic.” He noted that of the best efforts of the best people at arranging mergers and acquisitions in the business world, they are lucky to succeed four or five times out of 100, so it is not an easy job. “It is immensely complex,” he said. Councilman Karen Oliver also underscored that point. “The schools can’t go forward with what they want before we determine if we can afford it. We need to know what that number is.”
Snyder reiterated, “The fundamental question is what the land is worth, what it will yield.” Shields said earlier that the yield from the commercial component of the property could have a huge impact on what City taxpayers may or may not have to pay for a new or renovated school, and that they’d need to authorize through a bond referendum some time next year. If that is put off too much longer, the deteriorating conditions at the George Mason High School now, especially in the face of continuing enrollment growth, will only be exacerbated.
Shields said that he recommends retaining an outside consulting group to take over the management of the project, taking it out of the hands of School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and himself as the effective project managers now. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly agreed, saying, “Looking at this overall project, it is overwhelming. We need help with this.”
Shields said that “a team (of consultants) from outside the City can bring fresh ideas and concentrate for longer periods. He said that one big advantage of ending the earlier process, which involved two developer entities competing for the job, is that the issues of financing, including options for tax abatements and so forth, can now be discussed openly with the public, and not kept secret behind closed doors.