The Falls Church School Board voted unanimously after an one-and-a-half hour discussion Tuesday night to authorize the issuance of a so-called request for qualifications (RFQ) to the development world as a critical first step toward getting a new George Mason High School built. While some argued the board was moving too fast — following the 63 percent voter approval of the $120 million school bond referendum earlier this month — the Nov. 30 deadline for this first step has been advertised for over half a year now, Superintendent Peter Noonan reminded the board Tuesday.
Noonan also reiterated a big step the process has taken since the Nov. 7 election, which was to make all the important elements of the process public and transparent, something that did not happen when an earlier effort was aborted two years ago.
Noonan said that while the new high school “will not be a Cadillac, it will also not be a Pinto,” a reference to the quality of the construction of the new school that the board will be looking to achieve. The timeline for the process goes from this Friday to a School Board selection sometime in February 2018 of a final three candidates for the job, and then the choice of a single candidate by July 2018. The detailed design process is expected to take a full year, with the construction of the new school due to commence in July 2019 and to last two years.
Elements of the project he said are being looked for include 800 square foot classrooms, an auditorium with a capacity of 650-700, a competition sports gym, a geothermal system that would make the school energy “net zero” ready, 1,500 student capacity with a design for further expansion, and at a cost that will not exceed $120 million, with initial construction at a limit of $108 million.
“The goal is to get the best building we can that will last for 50 years,” he said, adding that the use of Virginia’s Public Private Education approach (PPEA) that has been successful in the F.C. system’s Henderson Middle, Thackrey preschool, Mt. Daniel first phase and Thomas Jefferson projects, “I think we can get what we want for the new high school for $108 million or less.”
He also reminded the School Board that responsibility for getting the new school built is theirs, even as collaboration with the City Council will be important for compatibility of the school with the 10 acres on the site that will be dedicated to high-density economic development to offset the cost of the school.
In that context, he noted that the idea of assigning a single “project executive” to oversee both the school construction and economic development components of the overall effort, an idea that had the apparent support of a lot of members of the F.C. City Council at its work session last week, might not be such a good idea.
“I don’t want an oversight process to involve too many layers,” he said, noting the “project executive” could represent that. “Part of the reason I was chosen for this job,” he said, “had to do with the fact that I’ve done this before, and I am very excited to get this done.”
It was noted that making the building completely “net zero” (using only as much energy as it can produce) might add 10 to 15 percent to its cost. It was also noted that expanding the auditorium capacity to add 100 seats, as questioned by School Board vice chair Phil Reitinger, could introduce an added cost of $3.5 million, according to an off-the-cuff estimate by consultant Bill Jones.
Noonan confirmed that, once the choice of the design-build outfit is made by next July, it will take a full year for the design of the building to be worked out in full detail. “This is a unique site, and it will take a year to design it,” he said.
One of the first points will be to negotiate as “guaranteed maximum price” for the project overall, he said, even as doing that in an “open book” environment will be a challenge.
On Wednesday, Dec. 13, an outreach informational forum for the community will be held in the Mustang Cafe at the high school to keep the process accessible to the public. It will be held at 7:30 p.m. Prior to that, Noonan said he will be meeting with the entire staff at George Mason High to brief them this Wednesday, Nov. 29.
He added that a website developed specifically to provide virtually real-time updates on the process, including all reports and related information, will be a critical centerpiece of the transparency component of the process.