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A controversial plan for the expansion of Bailey’s Elementary School is closer to becoming a reality.

The School Board voted last Thursday to acquire a vacant five-story office building on Leesburg Pike, across from the Seven Corners Shopping Center, that would serve as a second campus for the crowded Falls Church school.

The prospect of an urban-design school, the first of its kind in the county, brings both excitement and anxiety from both school officials and community members.

Bailey’s Elementary has the largest enrollment of any county elementary school, and the surge in student population is expected to continue in coming years. The current school building is operating at 33 percent over capacity, with 1,360 students enrolled as of November in a building meant to hold 1,020.

The school grounds hold 19 trailers to make room for the overflowing population, and the library has been cut in half so space could be converted into additional classrooms.

The brick office building at 6245 Leesburg Pike offers potential relief for the school. The school system’s current plan would see the 99,000-square-foot building converted into a vertical-design school to house grades 3-5 from Bailey’s, about 700 students in total.

The county’s goal is to acquire the building and complete the renovations in time for the 2014-15 school year.

Gwynnen Chervenic, the president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Bailey’s Elementary, could have both of her children — currently in second and fourth grade — in the new building next September. While Chervenic supports the move, she said she understands others’ hesitation.

“People right now see it as an office building,” Chervenic said. “They need to see it as walls that could hold a fantastic elementary school when they’re finished with it. I think most people will be open to a solution like this once they start seeing some of the plans.”

The lack of communication by the school system was one of the sticking points expressed by opponents in a public hearing before the School Board’s vote on Thursday.

Several community members did not come out against the solution outright but felt they needed more information before the county moved forward. Others worried about the 1.4 miles separating the Leesburg Pike property from the current school site, and its location on a busy highway and lack of outdoor play space.

“The community is now desperate for any relief, any solution,” said Ernie Wells, a neighbor of the office building whose son just graduated from Bailey’s Elementary. “The threshold for an acceptable solution is lower.”

School Board members noted before the vote that they had explored other possibilities in recent years, but all met with roadblocks. The office building is the best option available, according to Sandy Evans, the School Board representative for the Mason District, which includes Bailey’s Elementary.

“I do think people will be pleasantly surprised by what we have planned,” Evans said. “This will be a 21st century learning environment. This is not going to be kids in cubby holes.”

In a 9-3 vote, the School Board adopted a resolution directing the school system to acquire the property by condemnation or other means.

The building, constructed in 1987, has been vacant since September 2012. The school system already has tried to purchase the property, but so far, attempted negotiations with the owner have been unsuccessful.

The resolution reaffirms the School Board’s dedication to moving forward with their plan for this site, and opens up the possible use of eminent domain to acquire the property if other options fail.

School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District), one of three dissenting votes, said she opposed the resolution because of her concern over using this legislative power, which grants school boards the ability to acquire private property “necessary for public school purposes.”

Still, she did note her overall support for the use of the office building to relieve overcrowding at Bailey’s Elementary.

“I think we’re between a rock and a rock and a rock and a hard place,” Schultz said. “So now what? Do we continue to allow 1,300 students to go to school at a school with 19 trailers without bathrooms? That’s a really bad decision.”



kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com