By Lawrence Webb
I would like to thank the members of the Falls Church City Council who authorized a $120 million school bond referendum for a new George Mason High School to be placed on the ballot November 7. For more than two years, the School Board and City Council have worked together gathering information from consultants and experts, validating both the need of a new school and the costs to build it, and we continue our work on how best to maximize economically the 10 acres of our land to mitigate much of the costs of the new school project.
In advance of this fall’s referendum, we encourage citizens to take a final look at why we need a new high school, the benefits to both students and the community, and how we plan to pay for it. While many of you already understand the need, I invite anyone who would like to see for themselves what our students and staff endure each day to attend one of the tours that will soon be organized of our facilities.
Our 60+ year old building has not aged well, and it is time our facilities reflect the same commitment we have to our students. For many years we have kicked the replacement can down the road searching for a perfect time, a more affordable time to undertake this large of a project. All the while our schools continue to become more crowded and construction costs continue to rise. I believe there is no more perfect or affordable time than the present.
We have reached this moment after an incredible amount of work and consultation. We have looked at a great number of options; from renovation to a new building. We’ve discussed these options with each other and as a community at numerous meetings, forums, and town halls. In the end, the School Board and City Council deemed the best option is to move forward with new construction as projected renovation costs would almost be as expensive as a new building and would last less than the 50+ years of a new building.
An analysis of the critical improvement needs at the high school shows it would cost greater than $40 million, probably in the form of a bond, just to cover replacement of the end-of-life HVAC and boiler systems, and to replace the roof with a 25-50-year product. Yet these improvements would not address enrollment growth projected for the high school in the coming decades.
Further, if we were to improve our existing building it would ultimately cost our city more in the out years because we have to address the student capacity issue, and perhaps equally important, we collectively would lose the opportunity to develop the ten acres of land the School Board and General Government have identified for economic growth. It is evident from what has been presented publicly in the many forums we have held that this school, once the economic engine of the site is developed and producing, represents no more than three pennies on the tax rate. This modest increase in our community positions us to have a facility for decades that will match our tremendous programs and support our students and teachers as they move further into the 21st Century.
Last Monday I pledged to the community that the School Board would remain good stewards of the public monies entrusted to us by the City and will be diligent in our spending, especially in the next several years as the project moves forward as we recognize we are all in this together. We are always looking at ways to bring costs down and taking advantage of efficiencies both in capital and operational spending. But we will not skimp on our prime obligation: guaranteeing a personalized environment that supports the unique educational needs of every student who walks through our doors.
There are still many weeks between now and November 7. I hope the community will utilize this time to ask further questions. I and members of the School Board and City Council stand ready to answer them. We will soon be sharing responses to Frequently Asked Questions and will continue to expand them during this time.
Our schools are a major part of Falls Church’s history and identity. This, in many ways, is an existential moment for us. Are we a community that values our schools and is committed to our collective independence or is this a time where we seek alternatives to educating our students? If the City of Falls Church wishes to continue to be known for its world class education, then we must provide the facilities that allow our students and faculty to thrive.
Lawrence Webb is a chairman of the Falls Church City School Board.