Campaign Kicks Off to Win School Bond Referendum in November

Stepping off summer from a final sunny Labor Day and into the start of a new school year, proponents advocating the passage the November school bond referendum hit the ground running this week with an aggressive outreach campaign rooted in education and information.

“Yes! For Falls Church” is the name a leading cadre of activists have chosen for their campaign, and a website and Facebook page are up and running. The guest commentary space in this week’s edition of the News-Press reveals the approach that will be taken. The carefully-crafted tone of the piece cites “a decade of work by community members, the School Board and City Council and advisory boards and commissions” that included “comprehensive facilities, enrollment, and feasibility studies and in-depth financial analyses.”

The organizing group came together during August and is led by former School Board chair Susan Kearney, former School Board member Cecily Shea, longtime pro-school community activist Sharon Schoeller, and activist-parent Mary Asef. Shea is president and Schoeller and Asef are on the executive board of the non-profit Falls Church Educational Foundation. Many others in the community have been recruited to be involved in what is a fast-growing movement.

An exceptional effort is perceived as necessary given the price tag of the referendum, which at $120 million is the biggest in the City’s history. But as the proponents are dedicated to explaining to everyone who will listen, both the need for and the cost of a new George Mason High School have been tirelessly established through the efforts of all those groups mentioned above, and countless consultations and meetings.

In that context, the capacity to offset the cost for city taxpayers is also vitally important to winning the support required for an electoral win in November.

Dedicating 10 of the 35 acres of the school site at the city’s far west end to commercial development promises to mitigate the cost to a potentially very high degree. With the offsetting economic development yields that have been projected, the cost of the new school can be paid for with a four-cent tax rate increase (above the $1.33 per $100 of assessed real estate valuation that is the City’s current rate).

Making the case for such projections has been and will be a big part of the campaign to win passage of the referendum. A number of public meetings have already been scheduled, starting with one this Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. at the auditorium of George Mason High that will feature Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields and F.C. School Superintendent Peter Noonan. Following that, a F.C. League of Women Voters and Village Preservation and Improvement Society forum will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 19, a Falls Church PTA forum on Tuesday, Sept. 26 and the Citizens for a Better City forum will be held in October.

This Sunday’s event will be focused entirely on the referendum, but with four City Council and four School Board seats being contested on the November ballot, as well as statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, the other events will be more comprehensive of the entire election.

So far, no organized opposition to the referendum has surfaced that the News-Press has been able to identify, and the public response seems to be favorable to the need for the referendum. At a large block party held Monday to boost the candidacy of one City Council and two School Board candidates, Cecily Shea found a lot of positive response, she told the News-Press. But that was a younger crowd with a lot of school-aged children accompanying them to enjoy the party.

The “Yes! For Falls Church” campaign is also focused on explaining what will happen if the referendum fails, noting that unavoidable costs associated with the combined enrollment growth and aging of the existing school will result in the need for upwards of $50 million in new expenses, which would be passed onto taxpayers with none of the mitigating effects of economic development at the site.