Seen by the combined forces of the Falls Church City Council and School Board as a key threshold moment in deliberations on how to proceed with the considerable needs of the City’s George Mason High School, significant publicity has gone into the summoning of Falls Church citizens to a town hall meeting this Saturday morning at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.
The meeting is slated to go from 9 a.m. to noon in the school’s cafetorium, and its organizers are hoping to come away with a better sense of how well the public understands, and what the public wants to do about the school. It will be an important inflection point as plans for the school are moving toward a public bond referendum in November.
A joint meeting of the City Council and School Board at City Hall Tuesday night was for the purpose of preparing for the Saturday town hall, including how to best present the menu of options the two bodies are considering after months of fact and forecast gathering and deliberations.
Whittling down over a dozen options to three, with variables, for the sake of clarity was discussed. The three overarching approaches are:
• Renovation Only: a minimalist patchwork of repairs only to the existing building, including a new roof and boiler, and the low-cost construction of trailers for classrooms at $20 million. A second version coming in at about $60 million adds a 103,000 square foot annex to the existing building, instead of trailers. Neither of these options presents an opportunity for economic development on the site, as the area deemed most optimal for economic development is the southeastern corner of the property at the intersection of W. Broad and Haycock and that is taken up by the existing high school footprint. Therefore, taxpayers would bear the entire cost of either of those approaches.
• Phased Construction: This two-part approach, considered for spreading out the cost, would involve construction of a 268,000 square foot building by 2021 and an additional 35,000 square feet in 2026. This approach could allow for a relatively small amount of economic development by demolishing the portion of the school nearest to the Haycock-W. Broad intersection while leaving the core of the original school building. While the economic development would help allay some of the cost of the school, this would be the most expensive approach overall.
• New Construction: This approach would build an all-new high school in a currently underutilized part of the property at the farthest west end along W. Broad, leaving the existing high school to be occupied without interruption to the students pending the completion of the new structure, and once completed to involve the complete demolition of the existing school and opening up that portion of the land of economic development. The cost of this was given at $117 million.
At Tuesday’s meeting, however, interim School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller posited another version of the new construction approach, saying that if it was only about a new high school, then add-on features like the relocation of the schools’ central office (which he said was a bad idea, anyway, to have in the same space as the high school), the elimination of one or more of the three new gyms designed into it at this point, and the elimination of a Henderson Middle School addition could lower the cost of a newly constructed school to $90-$95 million.
This, he said, would be focused on building a new high school and nothing else, and would allow for its construction to be completed away from the existing high school, and allow for the complete demolition of the old school upon its completion in 2021 and open all 10 acres at that old school site for economic development.
The new school would accommodate 1,200 students, and be expandable to 1,500. (This compares to the current school capacity of 876 students and enrollment of 818).
Councilman Phil Duncan threw his support behind an option that would permit the highest and best use for commercial development. “No big and worthy endeavor is without risk,” he intoned. “If you don’t try to maximize economic development, we’ll be required to have the taxpayers bear the full cost of the school.”
He added later, “I will fight to the last breath for as much economic development as we can get up there,” suggesting that by allowing a floor-to-area (FAR) ratio of three or four, “it would “make the cost of the school very manageable.”
“This is, after all,” he said, “A once-every-75-years event that could last into the next century.”
But Council member Karen Oliver did not agree, citing risks and costs. To commit to a plan that assumes economic development will pay a large portion of it “really disturbs me,” she said. She cited her concern for the financing costs of the construction.
Mayor David Tarter echoed the view that commercial development will mitigate the risk of the school, and suggested that establishing a separate working group for the economic development portion, including the involvement from the Economic Development Authority and others, might be wise.