F.C. School Board Prefers All-New High School Priced at $110 Million

NEW FALLS CHURCH SCHOOL Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan (second from right) attended his first official Falls Church School Board meeting Tuesday night, a work session to mull options for the proposed new high school. (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church School Board will bring to a joint meeting with the F.C. City Council next Monday night a preference for an all-new high school at a cost of $110 million to go onto the 36-acre campus site.

The board members unanimously expressed their preference for the option among five total choices presented by consultants Perkins Eastman at Tuesday night’s lengthy School Board work session, officially the first public School Board meeting for new Superintendent Dr. Peter Noonan.

The cost estimates by the consultants were significantly higher than all earlier projections, with the worry that costs will only continue to rise the longer the project is delayed.

The only two more affordable options were for two variants of a mix of renovations to the existing school and new construction that came in at $103 million, a far cry from earlier estimates that had it at $70-$80 million. Those renovation options did not include a competition gym which if added later would be at a cost of $15 million more, the consultants said.

“The market is now hot, and there are construction labor shortages which are driving costs up,” one of the consultants said.

They proposed that the only real way to mitigate the costs of a new high school will be through some small savings and economic returns from the development of the rest of the property in question.

That was one of the reasons the School Board was strongly in favor of what was branded Community School Option 1, which leaves a full 10 acres available for mixed-use economic development.

(One of the shortcomings of the presentation Tuesday night was the consultants’ assumption that the acreage for commercial development would be at the corner of W. Broad and Haycock Road. A presentation by the consultants retained by the Campus Process Working Group to spearhead the economic development of the property said last Friday that it should not be predetermined that that location be where the commercial development will go. It should be left up to prospective developers to make that call, they advised. The overall site is very near the West Falls Church Metro station, for example, and greater proximity to public transit may be more desirable to a developer.)

The all-new high school options came in at $110 million for the version the board preferred, to $119 million each for two other versions. The hybrid renovation and new development versions both came in at $103 million, each without a competition gym.

A big advantage cited for the preferred all-new option were the fact that it could be built all in one phase, and therefore completed earlier, in two years and four months, with the commercial component due for completion only five months after that, while allowing for a full 10 acres of commercial, revenue-generating development.

With 58 classrooms that would be stacked in all the options, and by five stories in the preferred one, and an auditorium with a capacity of 750, the space for the outdoor athletic fields (football/soccer, baseball, softball and practice field) would remain at 53,800 square feet for all the options. The capacity for the 296,000 square foot school would be 1,200 (it is currently 800) with a “flex capacity” to 1,500, about where enrollment is projected to be in 15 years.

Board member Phil Reitinger cautioned that the school “should not be built too small,” citing problems caused when other projects in the City, like Thomas Jefferson and Mt. Daniel school additions, were planned that way.

The School Board’s preferred option and two others will be included in the presentation it will bring to the joint meeting with the City Council Monday night for comparison and deliberative purposes.

Three members of the Falls Church City Council sat through the lengthy presentation of options, Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, Letty Hardi and Karen Oliver. Connelly told the News-Press at the conclusion of the discussion that the School Board’s choice came back to what was being discussed in the first place three years ago, but that all the deliberations in the meantime have been useful to help better establish the basis for that choice.

In mulling the options going forward, the Council and School Board must calculate the level of public support for the project as it will be subject to voter approval in a bond referendum. The target remains to have that referendum on this November’s ballot, but it may be postponed. This November would provide the best chance for its success, however, as a higher that usual voter turnout, due to statewide candidates on the ballot, will improve its chances.

Noonan, greeting the board in his first meeting with it Tuesday after assuming his post just two weeks ago, said that “education is the brand of Falls Church, it defines who we are, and we need facilities to match our needs.”

A public town hall meeting on the subject is slated for Saturday, June 10, at 9 a.m. at the Henderson Middle School cafetorium.