School renovations never are easy; they take a long time, often years, because construction must be coordinated with students attending classes in the building. These “rolling” renovations may mean that a student’s time at a school may never be without some construction in progress.
Fairfax County’s bond referenda questions, scheduled for every other November, always include renovations to existing schools, along with an occasional new school to serve our growing student population. Renovations may include additional classrooms, upgraded science labs, modern cafeteria and gym spaces and, sometimes, improved administrative space, e.g., “the office,” for the principal and non-classroom staff.
Renovations to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology expanded the space, lightened and brightened student common areas, and provided state-of-the-art labs for new technologies. That renovation also took years! Falls Church High School was overlooked for years by the school system, but finally will be getting long-awaited expansion and upgrades. Annandale High School upgrades included new athletic fields, as well as the usual classroom amenities.
Of particular note, perhaps, is the proposed expansion of Justice High School, nestled between Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners, which serves more than 2,000 students in grades nine through 12. That number is forecast to increase, and the school requires additional classrooms to meet the needs of a diverse student body.
More students means more staff for the many programs offered at Justice, which means more parking spaces must be provided.
The school system’s request to use fewer than two acres of parkland at Justice Park, adjacent to the school, for expanded parking met with a firestorm of community opposition, and the Park Authority ultimately deemed the request as “simply not acceptable.”
The school system has withdrawn that proposal and is working on another approach, one that will take at least a year longer, and will require action by the Board of Supervisors. The Board was not involved in the original proposal, as it was designed to be an agreement between schools and parks, two county agencies that have responsibility for the parcels involved, not requiring any land use actions by the Board of Supervisors.
Justice High School still needs renovation and expansion, the bond approval is there, and the parking issues have not been resolved. It remains to be seen what a new plan would entail; Justice already has fewer parking spaces than required by the county’s ordinance, so a waiver of the requirement would have to be considered. Some in the community have suggested that students and staff be allowed to park on neighborhood streets, but the surrounding roads have a Residential Permit Parking District (RPPD) designation, which allows vehicle parking by permit only in residential areas.
It is doubtful that any neighbors, who have enjoyed relative peace from vehicle overparking during school hours on their roads, would consent to giving up that quality-of-life protection. Others have suggested building a parking deck on, or under, the existing parking lot. Parking decks may be commonplace in commercial areas; they also are very expensive to build and maintain. A typical space in an above-ground parking deck was estimated to cost $21,500 in 2019; underground, the cost to build that same space is $32,000 to $50,000! Building an expensive parking deck in a residential neighborhood, when our schools have so many classroom and teacher needs, would be a difficult argument to win, and not the intended purpose of the bonds that the voters endorsed.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is quoted as saying, “change is the only constant in life.” The human condition is changing constantly, which makes life both interesting and aggravating. Much as many would like to, we can’t go back, but we can move forward. Hopefully, a new and revised proposal for renovation and expansion of Justice High School will be the ticket for a new and exciting change for Justice High School students, families, and staff.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]