UPDATE: According to Falls Church School Board Vice Chair John Lawrence, commenting to the News-Press Thursday, the board expects the vote by the Fairfax Planning Commission on whether or not the F.C. Schools’ plans for the expansion and renovation of the Mt. Daniel Elementary school will be deferred from tonight until Sept. 14.
“We expect (Fairfax Planning Commissioner John) Ulfelder to make that motion (to defer–ed.) tonight and for it to pass,” Lawrence said. “We support the deferral so that we can work on the remaining issues that have been identified.”
Tonight the Fairfax County Planning Commission is expected to vote on whether or not the City of Falls Church’s plans for an expansion and renovation of its Mt. Daniel Elementary School conforms with the county’s Comprehensive Plan. The decision will determine whether the City’s school system can move ahead or cancel its plans there.
Tonight’s vote, postponed from a year ago when it was presumed an approval would be denied, comes tonight after the City and its schools downsized its plans for the 7.3 acre site just slightly outside the Falls Church City limits, and the county Planning Commission heard lengthy public comments in favor and opposed to the project last week.
It is expected the planners will not discuss or take in new information, but will simply vote on the plan tonight. Last week, Dranesville District commissioner John Uhfelder moved to delay the vote to this week, a motion that passed unanimously at 12:30 a.m. Friday morning.
Falls Church Mayor David Tarter led the delegation of City of Falls Church petitioners last week who spoke in favor of approving the expansion, in accord with the recommendation of the county staff, that included School Board chair Justin Castillo and Mt. Daniel principal Erin Kelly, Mt. Daniel teacher Ann Beckman and a contingent of parents of Mt. Daniel students.
In the audience at the Fairfax County Government Center supporting the Mt. Daniel petition were Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, School Board vice chair John Lawrence, School Board members Michael Ankuma, Erin Gill and Lawrence Webb, City Manager Wyatt Shields and City Council members Letty Hardi and Marybeth Connelly.
A key turning point seemed to occur when City of Falls Church parent and Planning Commissioner Andy Rankin engaged comments by Fairfax Planning Commissioner Earl Flanagan.
Flanagan confronted Rankin on the idea that, given Mt. Daniel is located in Fairfax County, that county residents are being asked to sacrifice for the Falls Church school. Rankin said it is about the students, and all the students, in or out of the country, “are citizens of Virginia.”
Castillo reinforced that by stressing the nature of public education, that it is a mandate of all jurisdictions, and asking that the planners treat the Mt. Daniel petition the same as if it were for a Fairfax County school.
He vowed that the City wants to continue as good neighbors at the site, where it has had its school since the early 1950s. He noted the decision to downsize the project to build for 792 students down to 660, and efforts to “take cooperation to a new level.”
But it was concerns for traffic flow on N. Oak Street in particular that was the subject of most of the comments in opposition to the project last week, and not on the proposition that the plans conform with the county Comprehensive Plan.
Still, one neighbor immediate to the site, Liam Montgomery, said he favors the Mt. Daniel plans because of its impact on education, the willingness of Dr. Jones and other school officials to listen to neighbor concerns and “the need for trust” to prevail in the matter.
Allison Hyra, a City resident with two students at Mt. Daniel, spoke about the fact that the renovation and expansion is “about a child’s education, not about traffic, only.”
Newly appointed Mt. Daniel principal Erin Kelly spoke of the importance of being able to maintain the integrity of the educational programs at the school, and Ann Beckman, a teacher at the school for 11 years, spoke to the “talented educators, beautiful setting and early foundational skills” at the school.
Opposition to the proposal was expressed by the McLean Citizens Association, the Ellison Heights and Mt. Daniel Citizens Association and the West Falls Crossing Homeowners Association on issues of traffic and parking.