Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: There’s a Better Pathway to a New School

By Dan Sze

The George Mason High School and its economic development referendum passed on Monday with two negative votes. I voted no; this explains my position.

Falls Church citizens are strongly committed to our excellent schools — I count myself among them — but that commitment might not translate to a vote for a referendum with so many questions left unanswered.

Four years and three school superintendents ago, we started a closed session process. After spending years in this black box, we abandoned this approach for many reasons.

We restarted the effort by decoupling economic development activity from school needs. I was an early and vocal proponent of decoupling. Already, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant fees, experts, outside counsel and strategic facilitation. A general approach has evolved with good ideas, but the approach remains a collection of aspirational ideas.

The approach is not a strategy, because a strategy has principles and these fundamentals are lacking. It is not a plan because a plan has milestones, critical dependencies, contingencies, management reserve and alternative pathways – if, and when – scheduled activities do not meet expectations or encounter resistance.

The referendum is an existential question and a multigenerational decision. Much is relying on hope — and we know that hope is not a coherent strategy.

Many questions remain unanswered. The most important one is: What does it mean if the proposed referendum is approved or if it fails? Does passage mean our City can increase real estate taxes? Some say as much as 20 cents on the current rate will be needed. Does failure mean citizens do not want a new high school or does it mean that they are unhappy with the level of information based on the progress so far?
I voted no because of the many unanswered questions.

Operational costs are projected to be 4 percent for schools and 2.5 percent for the City. How do we generate necessary annual revenue without an increase in school-age children?

There’s uncertainty in and the type of economic development. The financial market continues to smile favorably on multi-family construction which will erode our capacity to accommodate.

The lack of movement on economic development. After four years of talking about economic development, the result is four years of talk. We show little progress closing on a path forward with UVA/VT and WMATA. Fairfax will also want a piece of the action.

Should we rely on economic development not yet proposed? Is there merit to counting chickens before they come home to roost?

Is it prudent to assume a constant, and compounding, increase in city real estate assessments 2.5 percent each year for the next 15 years to underpin exceeding current City debt policy?

Has the desire for community oriented facilities: theater/auditorium, adult athletic facilities, swim center, library been resolved or are they still ambiguous?

How do we pay for a looming need for a TJ Elementary expansion because Mt. Daniel will yield less student seats and there’s no appetite to split a grade?

What is our position on 30-year versus 20-year bond since the proposed bond adds significantly to the overall costs and limits our future ability to bond? How do we address significantly reduced future debt capacity?

How do we reconcile our stated core values on environmental sustainability when the first item to be sacrificed on a new high school design is a modest cost ($350K) geothermal HVAC system?

Finally, leadership means addressing and driving down vulnerabilities and reducing risk. We should proceed only after we address the known-unknowns and have a solution for unknown-unknowns. In the first category: how do we pay for the increase in WMATA Metro fees in the coming years? Without adequate cash reserves, we cannot resource what we cannot anticipate.

Some recent questions on the appropriateness of the City’s current approach have been from those who have worked in the field of risk and many of our citizens have sounded these same concerns. One does not need to be a financial professional to understand these concerns are valid and based on common sense.

Common sense and good business management practice would tell us that we need to begin design of the new high school complex to obtain precision and fidelity of the true cost. This knowledge could be achieved before finalizing schematic design and at a relatively low investment. Commencing design would also call for underground test borings, so we would know whether extraordinary foundation work would be required and eliminate a costly source of known-unknowns. Simultaneously more traction is needed on economic development and agreements with developers and adjoining actors so that we would know how much revenue benefit could be realized. Additional capacity would be created with the first major bond defeasance occurring in FY2021.

Simply, there is time to get this right. We don’t need to act by referendum this Fall. Let’s take the time to get this right.


Dan Sze is a member of the Falls Church City Council.