Pro-Referendum Forces Refine Argument For Big Falls Church Election in November

A compelling narrative about why taxpayers should vote “yes” to authorize the issuance of a whopping $120 million for the construction of a new high school in the City of Falls Church began coalescing at last week’s joint meeting of the F.C. City Schools’ three PTA and PTSA organizations.

Among the myriad presentations on why voters should support the bond measure, it was never presented at clearly as at that meeting in the George Mason High School auditorium, and the result was predictable. Of the three groups — one representing the elementary school parent-teacher organization, one representing the middle school equivalent and the third, including student representation, representing the high school — there was only one vote against endorsing the referendum for passage.

What was presented more clearly than before was the notion that failing to pass the referendum to build a new George Mason High School would actually cost taxpayers more than if they did.

In fact, the case makes a lot of sense. Patchwork steps –which would be required if the referendum failed – are almost always more costly and bring far fewer benefits.

But the numbers were better rehearsed this time, and presumably going forward. Should the referendum fail in the Nov. 7 election, then in the fact sheet developed by the schools, “FCCPS will need to spend money to purchase trailers and upgrade failing systems.” It explained, “An analysis of the critical improvement needs at the high school shows it would cost $40 million, probably in the form of a bond, to cover replacement of the past end-of-life HVAC and boiler systems, permanently replace the roof, as well as other updates to infrastructure.”

All this, as Superintendent Peter Noonan presented at the joint PTA meeting, would not include the 20 classrooms that would be needed to address projected enrollment growth.

Overall, therefore, the cost of a “no” vote on the referendum would be in excess of $70 million, and while that would be less than $120 million, it would preclude any economic development offset.

By contrast, if the referendum passed, a carefully-studied process would ensue that would result in the dense economic development of 10 acres of the property at an estimated value of $40-45 million for a long-term ground lease and an estimated $3.1 million in annual tax yields, all that would offset the cost of construction. So, it is estimated that fully two-thirds of the cost of the new high school — or $80 million out of the $120 million total — would be offset by the economic development.

Thus, with the passage of the referendum, the net cost to taxpayers would be $40 million, and with the failure of its passage, the net cost would be $70 million.

Proponents of the bond referendum’s passage have the benefit of the conscious decision by city and school officials to make the entire deliberative process public and transparent. All the questions, including surrounding the 13 alternative approaches presented, were vetted publicly and openly when the City Council decided to abandon a more closed-door process that was required of a competitive bid process.

So, while some of the data presented has been challenged, especially by opponents of the referendum’s passage, attendees at the F.C. League of Women Voters and Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) forum witnessed such opponents compelled to accuse the proposition of “a blank check,” a “Taj Mahal,” as requiring a “leap of faith,” in a situation where “hope is not a strategy.”

Some of the rhetoric on blogs around town has also reverted to personal attacks, including one that suggests City Council member Letty Hardi may be “deliberately misleading” the voters.

Hardi responded with a letter to the editor published in this week’s edition, stating, “I urge my neighbors to make their decisions based on real facts, not selective facts or alternative facts. We’re better — and smarter — than that. A great deal of study has gone into researching options, risks, and mitigation plans. Much of this information is available online, or in the videos of past community forums. You can also reach out to me or other City officials to discuss the real facts and figures…I still optimistically believe Falls Church will rise to the occasion and separate fact from rhetoric, and I urge you to make an informed decision on November 7th.”