By Ross Litkenhous
Falls Church is a special place, and not just in a figurative sense. It’s certainly all of the adjectives you would expect to hear when describing a charming city with engaged citizens who put community first. Falls Church is all of those things, and the reason many of us live here.
But Falls Church is also special in a literal sense. We stand independent as a school district and for better or worse, mostly independent from State funding. We boast one of the most educated electorates in the country and, in this writer’s opinion, one of the greatest Memorial Day parades on the East Coast. And we’re small – a mere 2.2 square miles, home to just under 15,000 people. The decisions we make that impact us all are amplified by the closeness of our borders, making the weight of those decisions feel at times colossal.
Over the next few years we will face decisions regarding our schools and fiscal health that go far beyond the norm. My wife Sarah and I have three daughters making their way through Falls Church public schools, so I assure you we feel the weight of these decisions as much as anyone. That’s why it’s so important we get it right. Our schools are the backbone of our community. And right now, we have a unique opportunity to capitalize on what may very well be the single biggest decision we make as a city in the next 50 years.
George Mason High School is in dire need of help. The debate centers on whether or not we repair and renovate the high school, or construct a new facility. Unfortunately, simply repairing and renovating a 60-plus year old building in patch-work fashion only delays the inevitable. While it is an option, and a cheaper one, our community and our children deserve better.
Building new is the only viable option that makes sense in the long run. As many of you know, constructing a new high school will require financing in excess of $115 million. With the city carrying existing debt of approximately $50 million, tripling that amount justifiably gives everyone heartburn. However, there is a lot of confusion around how to pay for new construction – and where that money might come from. Some have proposed major property tax rate increases over the next few years to fund the debt, with some scenarios suggesting an additional fifteen cents may be needed. Other scenarios include a sale of the ten acres adjacent to the high school for development in order to fund the construction. Unfortunately, the perception among most is that regardless of how we approach this problem, a new high school will require a tax increase.
Our city leaders have vastly underestimated the value of our land and the various development options we have at our disposal. From a real estate perspective, given the size and proximity to the West Falls Church metro station, the land next to the high school is one of the most valuable pieces of commercially developable land in the entire Greater D.C. area. With smart planning, the resulting economic benefits will be massive, far more than currently projected. The revenue generated from the site goes well beyond simple real estate tax revenues, capturing the full spectrum of local tax revenue streams afforded a jurisdiction. The city also stands to benefit greatly from the indirect economic benefits that come with any large scale commercial development, the likes of which should be studied more closely by the city before considering any tax rate increases. There are also several debt service mechanisms such as payment in lieu of tax (PILOT) programs, which have been successful in neighboring cities, to accomplish exactly what we are facing right now. For example, such a program between the city and a developer could cover the costs of our school bond financing regardless of the timing and market forces normally impacting how much tax revenue a development generates. Those programs have worked, and I have had the good fortune in my career of witnessing the success of those public-private partnership agreements first hand.
The reality is we can do this without burdening taxpayers at all. We can build a new high school – but it requires creative, out-of-the-box thinking. And, more than anything, we need bold leadership to get it done.
We became free to run our own school system in 1948 when we declared independent city status. It’s another one of the things that makes our city so special. Free to blaze our own trail. Free to run our city the way that we want to. As Robert Frost wrote, “Freedom lies in being bold.” It’s time we take action to secure the future of our schools and our city’s fiscal health by thinking creatively – and being bold.