There is an astonishing lack of vision and creativity going into the effort so far to figure out how to expand the fast-growing Falls Church Public School System’s capacity, including a mind-boggling lack of appreciation for the “gift horse” that the transfer of the George Mason High School campus into the City limits as part of the deal the City made to sell its water system to Fairfax County.
The “gift horse” took the form of allowing about 10.5 acres of the 36-acre parcel to be used exclusively for economic development. With the site in question located adjacent the West Falls Church Metro station, the acreage has represented a dizzying potential for economic return to the City, clearly designed originally to be an offset for the cost of a new or expanded high school.
But the current plan is aimed at burdening the entire cost of the new school on City taxpayers, with only the most conservative consideration of the 10.5 acres. The plan calls for a sale of that land for $30 million (although its value has been assessed at a minimum of $40 million) and does not include a dime to be added from the resultant development of that land.
This is so totally contrary to the experience of the City in the last decade and a half, when it remained ahead of its fiscal curve despite the deepest of recessions, the impact of federal sequestration and other factors. It was achieved by aggressive economic growth. For economic growth factors to be excluded from the current policy is unfathomable.
Instead, taxpayers are being told they must bear the burden of a 15-cent increase in their real estate tax rate simply to salt away money in the City’s unassigned fund balance to assuage the perceived Scrooge-like demands of New York bond market.
The policy would begin implementation of that new tax even prior to the ability of voters to decide, presumably next November, whether or not to bond for a new school.
The other factor, of course, is that the City’s current debt policy is at 50 percent of the level allowable by state law. But while we’re not fans of taking on too much debt, for the City Council to self-impose such limits at the obvious expense of taxpayers reflects a callous insensitivity to the overall fiscal health of the City and its residents.
The sorely lacking factors involve alternatives to traditional “bricks and mortar” approaches. The Schools’ new interim superintendent, Dr. Robert Schiller, last week noted the trend toward K-16 educational approaches and this week U.S. Rep. Don Beyer said that pushing for free community college education opens the door for a K-14 approach. In either case, the City could pursue utilization of the underutilized University of Virginia and Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Grad Center, which was originally built with the promise that a second building would also be added.