By Jeffrey Anderson
Many thanks to those responsible for the recent informative three hours on options for the high school campus. Turnout was impressive, as was the detail discussed. Judging from comments in my small breakout group, there were few good reasons for renovation, aside from lower cost, or phased construction of a new school, more disruptive and expensive and allowing less development. The nonphased new school option shined by comparison, given the alternatives’ drawbacks.
The dominant reaction I heard was worry about cost, a concern I share. I join others, then, in being heartened by Dr. Schiller’s recent thoughts on sensible ways to pare back the $117 million cost of a nonphased new school. Others may also wonder why Falls Church is proposing to spend so much more in total, per student and per square foot ($117 million for 1,500 students at $384 per square foot) than Virginia Department of Education tells us has been spent recently on larger nearby high schools such as Marshall ($52 million, 2,000 kids, $142 per square foot), TJ ($67 million/1,850 kids/$169 per square foot) and Langley ($60 million/2,100 kids/$177 per square foot). Smaller footprints kept new construction in Loudon under $65 million each for three new high schools with capacities averaging about 1,900.
Two other takeaways were noteworthy. The first was the absence of an option for a smaller new school for 1,200 students, but with adjacent land to add capacity quickly later if current enrollment projections prove accurate. Such an option makes sense if recent enrollment drivers aren’t sustained. This seems as likely as not, since the recent surge in enrollment growth (to 4 percent a year since 2013 from 2.2 percent during 2002-2013) has been in older multifamily housing rather than newer mixed use developments or single family detached housing. This reflects the take up of existing capacity, which will be difficult to continue and might well reverse. Consider Oakwood, which together with Pearson Square has accounted for nearly one third of the increase in overall enrollment since 2002. Single family detached housing, by contrast, has made a smaller contribution to enrollment growth since 2013 than at any point since 1989. That might reverse, however, if tax rates go up too far and too quickly, triggering accelerated turnover of existing homes occupied by older residents whose children have graduated. Fill too many of those empty bedrooms with new students and even a 1,500-capacity high school could end up being too small.
The other takeaway was that budget pressures will be great. Implementing the current capital improvement program will require increasing the residential property tax rate by 17.25 cents. Up to 2/3 of this might eventually be rolled back by proceeds from developing the full 10 acres allowed. That part due to higher tax revenues would only come after 2025, however, on conservative but still uncertain assumptions. The surge in borrowing, moreover, would deteriorate standard creditworthiness metrics enough to spark a two-notch rating downgrade. Assuming current market conditions, which are unlikely to last as the Fed continues scaling back bond market support, this would add some 60 basis points to borrowing costs, or $700,000 in additional annual interest costs.
Rating agencies and investors may be impressed by the political will needed to boost the tax rate to $1.49 from $1.315 at present, and even more so by whatever is needed to pay for Metro’s needs and more increases in health insurance costs for city and school employees. More revenues from more development will help limit how much tax rates will need to increase. Much will also depend on how successfully new development at the campus and elsewhere can be advanced without adding further to enrollment and related budget pressures.
But spending more than we ought now for a larger high school than may be needed will add unavoidably to those budget pressures. Those with younger children still in the schools should consider what those pressures will mean for future spending on teacher salaries and technology. Past experience at George Mason High School itself suggests these two items will be bigger determinants of education quality going forward than the facility itself. Opting for a new but smaller high school and value engineering costs as aggressively as possible seems the best path forward to give us a new facility and preserve the fiscal flexibility needed to prioritize quality teachers and technology.
So please persist, Dr Schiller, with the $60 million cost concept you have recently discussed. Working top-down from a budget constraint geared to what we can afford will require revisions to plans and movement away from some of the more costly aspirations voiced in the visioning exercise. There will still be considerable support, however, within the broader community for a more prudent approach that leaves options open and flexibility intact to address the multiple uncertainties we face going forward. Not least among these, we now know, will be the implications soon of tighter federal government spending for Falls Church residents and businesses.