As deadlines are looming large now for placing a school bond referendum on this November’s ballot, the Falls Church City Council and School Board will host a public forum about where plans currently stand for the future of George Mason High School this coming Saturday morning at 9 a.m. in the cafetorium of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School that shares the site with the high school.
A “first reading” of language for a November referendum should be advanced by the Council on June 26, City Manager Wyatt Shields suggested, with the need for its final form by July 24 to meet the timeline to get on the November ballot. The clock is ticking.
The presentation of three preferred school development options – two for an all new school and one for a renovation of the existing school with new wings – will be featured this Saturday. It is a presentation the consultant team of Perkins Eastman has already made twice, once to the School Board, which winnowed down a larger set of options to the three, and at the joint meeting of the School Board and Council last Monday night.
Still, Saturday’s forum will not include information on what a different consulting team is devising for optimizing the economic yield from the property, up to 10 acres that can be used for dense economic development to offset the cost of the new school. That information, now being put together by the consulting team of Alvarez and Marcal, will be vital for establishing what the monetary ask will eventually be on the bond referendum, and its report is not due until next Thursday, June 15.
Alvarez and Marcal was chosen by the Campus Process Economic Development Working Group last month to work up its projections and recommendations, and in its first meeting before that group was very bullish on the potential for the site, based on its experience in attracting big-time developers to situations such as this.
Last Monday night, when the City Council was given the Perkins Eastman options for the school campus, focus was on ways that costs could be shaved off the estimated $110 million price tag for the School Board’s first choice.
As per the tasking from the School Board, the consultants included a range of cost-saving measures from reducing the number of classrooms by 10, the size of a performing arts center, reductions in athletic program spaces, which combined could save up to $15 million or so.
Council member Letty Hardi said, “These estimates come in well north of where we need to be cost-wise,” and said that savings need to be found “in the right areas.”
Council member Karen Oliver stressed, “It is important to consider what the impact on the taxpayer will be.”
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly established that “back of the envelope estimates” made by Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller earlier that a plan could be put forth costing $70 to $80 million was not feasible” upon further study. According to Perkins Eastman, that plan would still cost over $100 million.
“It would represent a huge risk to say the high school will cost too much, so let’s not do it,” Connelly said.
Councilman Dan Sze said he’s “a little disappointed” at the kinds of estimated costs the various school options have, but noted that when the process began, the initial estimate was a need for $140 million.
Councilman Phil Duncan said he’d urge the maximum acreage for economic development to offset the school construction cost, estimates concerning which will not be available to the Council for another week.