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F.C. Council, School Board Flummoxed By No Future Enrollment Crystal Ball

MEMBERS OF THE FALLS CHURCH City Council and School Board met again Tuesday night to tackle some of the tough questions pertaining to the campus property, including what is the size of the high school that should be built for. (Photo: News-Press)
MEMBERS OF THE FALLS CHURCH City Council and School Board met again Tuesday night to tackle some of the tough questions pertaining to the campus property, including what is the size of the high school that should be built for. (Photo: News-Press)

In just a few months, the Falls Church City Council and School Board are going to have to agree on how much it is willing to ask the citizens of Falls Church to pay for a new and/or expanded George Mason High School.

The biggest function of that ask will have to do with projecting future enrollment growth. While projections to date done by the schools’ consultant, Weldon Cooper, in conjunction with the system’s own talented financial analyst Hunter Kimble, have been “spot on” so far, consultant Michael Akin told a joint meeting of the groups Monday night, predicting the future is never an exact science.

But with a price tag that could range from $88 million to renovate the existing footprint to upwards of $120 million to grow the capacity of the school, all the elected officials are leery about what to ask voters to approve in a referendum set now for next November.

For example, should a combination new and renovated high school be built for a capacity of 1,200 students (compared to its current enrollment of 821), which would not to be completed until 2019 or 2020, when current enrollment projections are that the 1,200 threshold could be reached only six years later (as current projections suggest)?

But if it is built for a higher capacity (the projected enrollment now is at 1,368 by 2031), then the cost may simply be prohibitive for the voters.

It goes without saying that also being considered is the impact of some of the Council and Board posts which will be on that same ballot.

While the City of Falls Church has a laudatory record of supporting its government’s carefully-made plans for improving the quality of life in the Little City, including its most recent overwhelming approval of renovating and expanding the City’s public library earlier this month, the dollar size of the school referendum next fall will be the biggest in the City’s history.

These decisions coming to the Council and Board were never expected to be easy, and so far that’s putting it mildly. Akin’s Link Strategic Partners firm was retained just to help make this and other dicey decisions.

So far, each meeting to tackle this problem has taken seemingly forever, especially since the two groups held a three-hour meeting on the subject last month, and took almost as long on Nov. 1 to decide that it would be more efficient to select a task force of representative members to meet every week. Even the name of the group is time consuming to recite, “The Campus Process Working Group,” with no readily attainable acronym (Krampus? – ed.).

There were two meetings of the working group, with Council members Letty Hardi and Marybeth Connelly on the one side and School Board members John Lawrence and Erin Gill on the other. They met for over two hours on Nov. 9 and for over three hours on Nov. 17, with many paid City and school staff members present and Link Partners personnel as moderators.

After devoting almost two hours to the subject with all Council and Board members present Monday night, the next working group meetings are set for Dec. 1, 8 and 15.

“There is a fear that we may under-build,” School Board chair Justin Castillo said at Monday’s meeting. “Is it out of the question to rule out an enrollment of 5,000 some day? We don’t know.”

Castillo said “the elephant in the room” is the implication in all this of the type of housing that will be built in the future in the City.

So far, over 1,000 single family home properties have been identified in the City whose land values are greater than building values, suggesting they’ll be susceptible for rebuilds. Whereas only 300 of those properties currently have children in the schools, rebuilding could be with a mind to making them all attractive to young families with multiple children.

Also, projections that are currently being used by Weldon-Cooper factor in only new multi-family residential projects that have either been approved (like Mason Row) or are seen as plainly on the horizon (like the Washington-Broad property). It models in that there may be two residential projects on the campus site (in the 11 acres that will be susceptible to commercial development).

But that’s all. In the next decade, there may be numerous additional projects no one knows about yet that get approved, and insofar as they may all offer new revenues to the City greater than their costs, they will be hard, politically, to deter.

“We may well get more development than is being shown here,” said Mayor David Tarter. “For example, as apartment buildings age, they tend to attract more children.

Also, the data has shown that while the school system’s enrollment growth was at a rate of 3.7 percent the last decade, it has increased to a rate of 4.3 percent over the last five years. Will that escalation in the rate continue or not? What are the factors? They may be macro-factors, such as the level of federal government spending on defense in the region.

Still, as School Board member Phil Reitinger said Monday, “Modeling for new development will help us determine where a ‘bulls eye’ may be” deciding on the size of the high school. “It will be both a political and a data-driven decision.”
All meetings on this subject are open to the public.