Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Focus on New School Project, Not Library Expansion

By Christina Goodwin

This November, we will be seeing a bond referendum on the ballot for an $8 million bond to expand the Mary Riley Styles Library. In July of this year, I sent a similar letter to City Council and the School board with the same concerns below. They choose to put this issue up for community vote. Therefore, I’m writing to ask each of you to consider carefully this question you will see on the ballot next month.

A bond is being placed on the ballot to improve and expand the Mary Riley Styles Library. I do not support the plan. To be clear, the non-support vote doesn’t mean I don’t support Mary Riley Styles Library and its programs – quite the contrary. What I disagree with is the current plan, more specifically the timing of the project.

Falls Church City is undoubtedly at a crossroads with its capital spending needs. The largest capital project in its history is looming – the Mary Ellen Henderson (MEH)/George Mason High School (GMHS) campus.

I think it’s fair to say we can all stop debating the need for a new high school. How to achieve that project is being debated from somewhere between “what we can afford” of $51 million, to a current estimate of $112 million. Either way it’s a big number.

A library expansion of $8 million represents between and 7 percent and 16 percent of the campus project’s cost. A commitment now to the library will only complicate the ability to pay for the campus project. The reconfiguring of George Mason High School not only solves the educational space issue, but also offers a return on the investment through the sale of part of the land and the rental of the school space and athletic facilities.

The library expansion represents a cost outlay without the possibility of additional incoming revenue. A public education facility is critical, and a great library is really nice to have. When spending gets to a breaking point critically, it has to trump nice-to-have expenditures. Spending the money now on the library instead of waiting another 5 – 10 years, handicaps the MEH/GMHS project, and potentially an even better library expansion. I believe the current library plan is a compromised plan, scaled back from the original better plan and the one that would serve the city best. I support a greater expansion of the library when the time is right. If the campus project ended up providing more money than currently conceived, wouldn’t we rather have waited to build an even bigger library? There is an upside to taking risks, as well as downside.

So, do we do nothing for 5 – 10 years to address the aging infrastructure and space capacity issues of the library? No, there should be things we can do to improve it. Reviewing the list of items by Chet DeLong published in the Falls Church News-Press, I see two types of expenses: essential repairs, and expansion and improvements. Because there is already $2 million being pushed into the CIP from prior years, use that to repair the HVAC, elevator and satisfy the ADA needs.

For the expansion, let’s wait until the campus project is solidified. Once the dust settles from that project in a few years, the city will be in a better position to make informed decisions. Have variations and combinations of the following ideas been explored to address the space issue?

• Move the adult section of the library to the new campus and share the library with the schools (similar to what Arlington County did in Westover). This shouldn’t require additional staff other than the weekends, and perhaps later during the weekdays.

• Can space from the renovation of city hall be utilized for some of the programs? It’s only a short walk, and shouldn’t change staffing needs.

• Temporarily remove some of the library items such as movies and music (the entire front room) and maybe the historical part of the library (whatever materials are least used). Otherwise, could these materials be moved elsewhere and available during select hours? (Or, use trailers as the schools must use for class space).

• Transfer some of the needs from the library to other spaces, such as after-school studying at the teen center?

• Use of the Friends of the Library to raise donations like the Falls Church Educational Foundation does for the schools.

• Offer naming rights to the new wing if it can be funded outside tax dollars?

If the city moves as one (not including city service and school services) determining the big decisions first and being willing to take risks, the outcome will be better than if it continues to push smaller projects in front of larger ones. I sincerely appreciate the 11 years of the library board’s efforts to improve the library, and I’d like to see their original vision come to fruition, not the scaled-back version. Let’s stop any non-essential capital spending until the MEH/GMHS campus project is determined.