By Letty Hardi
Virginia voter turnout on Tuesday was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race, and Falls Church voters topped the statewide average with nearly 65 percent turnout, braving the cold and rain to your make voices heard. And we heard you. Elections reflect the values of a community and the direction of where we should go. We heard from 64 percent of voters that we are a community that prides itself on education, fact-based decision making, progressive values, and invests in the future — and that it is time to move forward with a new high school.
However, the 36 percent of voters who said no to the referendum should give us pause. This referendum passed with a smaller margin than past school bond referenda in Falls Church, and a less decisive win than neighboring jurisdictions’ school bonds. Just because the referendum passed does not mean we can ignore the minority. While we can never please everyone in a democratic process, I am cognizant that 1 in 3 of my friends and neighbors had enough concerns to say no, and those voices are also important.
Now the hard work begins. With years of study under our belt, this election was merely the first gate in the long course that has preceded us and the next step in the extensive process ahead. School design and economic development planning will ramp up over the next 18 months, completing in spring 2019. Diversity of thought leads to better outcomes and we need everyone at the table — regardless of the vote you cast — to shape both projects and get this right for Falls Church.
So what is next? This will be a historic undertaking, and therefore not without risk. With city and school leadership and the groundwork done to date in relationship building with our neighbors, risk mitigation, and financial planning, I believe we are in great shape to take on this endeavor. Nevertheless, I believe we should initiate several prudent steps now to ensure success for the entire community:
1) A shared commitment to bring school costs below $120 million. Construction costs continue to rise and we need to plan for the unexpected. It is far wiser to look at ways to reduce costs early in the process than to value engineer and cut corners after construction starts in 2019.
2) Operating cost discipline is important, now more than ever. We have shown that we can live within our means. The tax rate has been rather flat in recent years, and we should consider a “budget diet” across the city, much like when we built the middle school, to prepare.
3) Strong governance processes. The bond referendum passage is neither a blank check nor a green light for full steam ahead. We have already begun the work in establishing a cross functional body and a process with clear decision gates before any bonds can be issued. With parallel and interdependent school and economic development workstreams, we need to operate as one team with integrated decision-making along the way.
4) Strategic facilities planning over a longer planning horizon. To the everyday citizen, I know it can feel like we are fire-fighting from one project to the next and the capital needs are never ending. I will continue to advocate for longer range infrastructure planning across the city, so we anticipate future capacity needs and carefully prioritize and sequence projects, which ultimately reduces the taxpayer burden.
5) Affordability. It is not lost on me that the tax rate impact of the bond, even partially defrayed with economic development, continues to push our tax rate higher in the already expensive Northern Virginia region. Beyond economic development, we should continue to explore the expansion of tax relief strategies, revisit affordable and workforce housing needs, and other affordability ideas so we can be a home for all generations.
This week’s election was a pivotal moment for our city’s identity and sustainability as an independent city, and we have an incredible opportunity ahead to see it through. If we do this right, we will have a new, greener high school that will match the high quality education we are known for, create an asset for the entire community, and open up opportunities for development that will shape the future of the city and create an enduring stream of revenue for years to come.
Showing up on Election Day is your civic duty, but showing up after Election Day is the unglamorous, roll-up-your sleeves kind of work. You have my commitment that there will continue to be a transparent, deliberate process with many opportunities for public input, open roles in citizen task forces, town halls, and pop up meetings along the way. I invite all voices, and our collective knowledge and ideas, to get involved and make this project a true community endeavor. Let’s get to work.
Letty Hardi is a member of the Falls Church City Council.