A renowned educator with a lengthy career serving in high-level administrative positions in public high school systems across the U.S. has weighed in with a ringing endorsement of a “yes” vote for the school bond referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot in the City of Falls Church. Dr. Robert Schiller, who stepped away from retirement last January to serve a critical four months as an interim superintendent of the Falls Church City Public Schools, issued a public statement this week contending that “an affirmative vote (on the referendum) will ensure the continuing success and achievement” of the Falls Church school system, “while sustaining Falls Church City’s reputation as a wonderful place to live and educate children.”
In his 45-year career, Schiller has served as the superintendent of four school districts and two state school districts in his career, which included being called in as the CEO and CFO of the famous 1997 reorganization of the Baltimore School System and a period heading the City of Los Angeles School System with its 729,000 students.
His tenure as an interim superintendent in Falls Church earlier this year came at a time when the School Board and City Council were wrestling with major issues concerning the future of the 65-year-old George Mason High School facility, and began evaluating what became 13 different options for moving forward.
In that process, Schiller threw one option into the mix last February that became the subject of controversy when he suggested a low-cost hybrid solution that some in the community have continued to point to. However, Schiller made no reference to that in his recent statement, “The current high school facility for George Mason High students cannot be the school for the future. A replacement for GMHS is necessary and overdue by at least a decade…Though well-maintained, the building no longer serves the changing needs of students and the sophisticated programs and services of the 21st century.”
The current superintendent, Dr. Peter Noonan, determined along with the current School Board members to refrain from outright advocacy for the referendum, adopting the posture of providing information for the citizens instead. Still, of the six candidates now running for four seats on the School Board in the Nov. 7 election, all but one is on record in support of a “yes” vote on the referendum. Supporters on the ballot include current School Board chair Lawrence Webb and four challengers, while the only opponent is challenger Alison Kutchma.
In her statement on the bond vote submitted to the Falls Church League of Women Voters (whose complete voter guide is published elsewhere in this edition of the News-Press), Kutchma wrote, “I will be voting No. The voters need to understand fully the financial risks and obligations before committing to the project. They do not. There are too many unknowns to vote Yes on a project of this size.”
The only other candidate on the ballot with a negative view is incumbent City Council member Dan Sze, who was one of two No votes on the seven member Council to place the referendum on the ballot in July. His response to the League of Women Voters was to affirm that if passed, he will fully support the effort to “get the project done.”
Otherwise, all five active Council candidates, including incumbents David Snyder and Marybeth Connelly, have taken stands in support of the referendum.
Though not on the ballot this year, Council member Phil Duncan has taken a major role in arguing with a handful of citizens on the local “Falls Church Way” blog in defense of the risk mitigation factors in the project, including taking on Kutchma’s claim in the School Board candidates debate last week that the economic development component of the development project would involve “1,000 new apartments.”
Also, in a question to City Manager Wyatt Shields in this Monday’s Council meeting, Snyder elicited a confirmation that under the terms of the referendum, no sale of any of the $120 million in bonds for the new school would occur without agreements in hand for the 10-acre economic development portion of the project that meet the approval of the Council.
Some critics of the referendum have been accused in the online exchanges of “obfuscation and deceit,” being “caustic and defamatory,” in claiming that the referendum is based on “blind faith” and “overly dramatic stories.”
The impact of large scale mixed-use projects on growing school enrollment numbers was one bone of contention, with Duncan citing that of the 2,670 Falls Church School System students, only eight percent have come from the seven mixed use condo or rental apartment buildings that have opened in the last 15 years.
While others disputed that number, Duncan argued that “because of their low public service costs, these seven buildings, taken together, are strongly revenue positive for the City. They pay far more taxes than they cost in public expenditures.”
In his statement this week, Schiller said, “As a small city, Falls Church faces a challenging situation, a critical need for an infusion of a new and substantial revenue stream to fund a high school facility and other City capital projects. The City also has, within its grasp, the opportunity to tap that revenue stream. Many other communities would be envious of this opportunity. Don’t waste it!”
He added, “The decision to advance a bond referendum to construct a completely new GMHS and to dedicate 10 acres for development is the best informed and most strategic decision for the City.”