Schiller Stuns School Board With Plan for $60+ Million High School

F.C. INTERIM SCHOOL Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller (middle of those seated on the right) presented his latest plan for a new high school to the F.C. School Board Tuesday. (Photo: News-Press)
F.C. INTERIM SCHOOL Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller (middle of those seated on the right) presented his latest plan for a new high school to the F.C. School Board Tuesday. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church’s veteran interim superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller stunned the F.C. School Board late Tuesday night with a new plan for a single-phase construction of a new George Mason High School with an estimated cost of almost half the current $117 million projection for a 1,500 student capacity school. His rough estimate is that it could be done for $60-$70 million.

Schiller carried forward logic he introduced at a joint F.C. City Council-School Board work session last week, and then at a City Council work session Monday night, by noting that removing or finding other ways to deal with non-essential elements of a new school construction plan could save millions in taxpayer dollars.

His latest iteration was a further advance based on the preponderance of community concerns elicited from a record-turnout town hall event held last Saturday morning at the Henderson Middle School. City Hall officials indicated to the News-Press that the attendance topped 200, virtually unprecedented for a town hall gathering of its type in the City.

Summaries of over an hour of small-group deliberations by the participants indicated a strong preference for a single-build high school, for maximum economic development allowable on the 39-acre site, and a great concern for limiting the cost of it all to taxpayers. These came out of the three options presented at the meeting, a simple renovation and minor expansion of the existing school (precluding any economic development), a two-phased construction of a new school (at the highest net cost of all options and minimal opportunity for economic development) and a single-phase construction of a new school with maximum potential for economic development.

Schiller told the School Board Tuesday night that the current plan for the single-phase option comes with an estimated cost of $117 million for a 303,989 square-foot school. But that is with the inclusion of three gyms taking 98,210 square feet, space for a central office for the school system and an addition to Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.

He indicated that all these components are not essential for the new high school, especially the fact that a proposed three gyms takes up almost a full third of the space for the school. He noted that in his lengthy career as a highly sought-after school administrator, he’s often seen the problem arise of school districts seeking new facilities and adding too many extraneous add-ons that drive up the cost to a point of losing citizen support.

The plan that Schiller presented to the board late Tuesday called for a continued use of the three gyms already at the high school and the Henderson Middle School.

He proposed a portion of the west end of the existing high school would be retained with renovations to include the two gyms already there, with the cafeteria space also there retained for multi-use space. The newer “A Wing” west end classrooms with 12,000 square feet would be retained for a central office separated off from the bulk of the new high school. Then the new school would be built to 200,000 square feet.

The Henderson Middle School addition would be delayed until it would actually be needed and the “competition gymnasium” would be the gym that taxpayers paid for to have located in the lower level to the Henderson Middle School less than a decade ago. With that one already operative, why pay for a new one?

The latest Schiller plan would free up eight acres or more for commercial development at the portion closest to the intersection of West Broad and Haycock that could commence with the completion of the new school in 2021.

Schiller said his new plan arose from the realization of the two main points that arose from last Saturday’s heavily-attended town hall on the subject of the new school. The first was the sense that a single phase construction of a new school was preferable to a two phase process, and to a mere renovation of the existing high school. The second was the concern for the cost.

While the single phase new construction will open up as many as 10 acres for potentially dense commercial development that will eventually help pay for the school, the prevailing estimated $117 million price tag for the new school was daunting, especially given that voters will need to approve a bond referendum for the project this November.

So Schiller’s latest brain child, which came upon him in the wee hours Tuesday night, he said, could achieve both the single phase construction, with its commercial component, and at a significantly lower cost.

The School Board Tuesday night resolved to move quickly within the narrow time window to take the steps necessary to have language for a November bond referendum ready by late July to meet the deadline, which is 90 days ahead of an election.

While taking no action at this Tuesday’s work session, specific steps became imminent, with vice chair Phil Reitinger saying, “We’re getting to the point we ought to move very aggressively…There is no reason to sit on this. We need to go out and get a request for proposal.”

Board chair Lawrence Webb concurred that the renovation option “is off the table,” and John Lawrence and Reitinger agreed. The renovation only option “may be frugal in the short term, but very costly in the long term,” Lawrence said.

Then, with the issue being solely the best approach to an all-new school (in one or two phases), the two-phase option was dismissed as merely too costly, in fact the most costly option of all.

At the City Council’s work session on Monday night, where Schiller attended and spoke, the need for work on the kind of economic development the City will want on the site was discussed, with Mayor David Tarter suggesting that a special task force be formed on that subject to involve the City’s Economic Development Authority and other bodies.

A significant advance over the earlier, aborted approach — involving putting out a request for proposal for the combined school construction and economic development components — that was dumped last fall involves not only greater public transparency now, but the ability to seek requests for the two components, the school and the economic development, separately.