As we prepare to say goodbye to 2013, it’s always instructive to reflect back on the events that made headlines across Fairfax County. When all is said and done, 2013 will best be remembered for school-related budget cuts, an ill-advised government shutdown and a gubernatorial race that was as long, nasty and expensive as any in recent memory.
Fortunately, all of this year’s headlines weren’t bad. Virginia did get some much-needed transportation money, the Silver Line is just about ready to roll, and 10 Fairfax-based sports teams managed to capture state championships.
Some of the year’s top stories include:
In April, the Virginia General Assembly passed the final version of the first comprehensive transportation funding bill in decades. The new taxes and fees are expected to generate nearly $6 billion for transportation projects statewide over the next five years.
The bill brought about a 1 percent increase in the sales tax in Northern Virginia, to 6 percent, with a portion of those funds being set aside for local road and transit needs.
It also reduced the state’s gasoline tax and introduced an unpopular fee on hybrid and electric vehicles, which several local legislators have pledged to repeal in the 2014 session.
The county school system faces a projected budget deficit of $98.3 million for fiscal year 2015.
That shortfall already includes an expected 2 percent increase in school funding from the county totaling $34.3 million. But Superintendent Karen Garza told the county’s Board of Supervisors in November that she is struggling to figure out how to close the remaining gap without affecting the quality of instruction.
“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but if our increase is just 2 percent, it will be devastating for our system,” she said.
Garza’s overtures represent the start to an annual give-and-take between the county government and school system to reach a budget agreement.
While some county officials have wondered whether the school system is exaggerating its financial situation, according to Garza the budget shortfall is made up of necessary increases, including continued enrollment growth and an increase in health insurance rates.
To address the deficit, the school system is considering a myriad of options, including furloughs for employees, cuts to student programs and class size increases.
The Dulles Metrorail extension faced delays on its first construction phase while also meeting key milestones to begin the second phase of construction.
In July, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority announced that completion of the first phase would be delayed by two months to allow sufficient time for testing. In November, the authority announced additional delays to correct a software problem discovered during testing.
As of press time, the agency still had not announced that the first construction phase had reached substantial completion — the point at which it can turn the Silver Line over to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The opening date for the Silver Line, which will bring rail service to Tysons Corner and Reston, is unknown but is expected to be in early 2014.
In May, MWAA awarded a $1.2 billion contract for the project’s second phase, which includes stops in Reston, Herndon, Dulles Airport and Loudoun County. The contract came in about $200 million lower than expected.
Construction on the second phase is expected to ramp up in 2014.
Fairfax County’s federal workforce endured furloughs due to federal budget cuts and then a partial shutdown of the federal government that lasted for more than two weeks.
While federal employees ultimately received back pay for the days they missed during the shutdown, at year’s end Fairfax County officials still were waiting to see the full impact of the lost workdays on sales taxes and other revenue.
There was a 2.6 percent decline in sales tax revenues during the period that workers were furloughed due to budget cuts.
County Executive Ed Long expressed concern about the continued ripple effects of the federal budget uncertainty on the many government contractors that call Fairfax County home.
Congress reached a small budget deal just before the holidays, possibly bringing some relief to county coffers in the new year.
The Fairfax County school system took several measures to ease overcrowding this year but still struggles to accommodate a growing student body.
The current infrastructure cannot keep pace with a boom in population. The system has grown by about 3,000 students per year over the last five years, and that trend is expected to continue.
The School Board in May approved a boundary change reassigning hundreds of students from Fairfax High and Lanier Middle schools to alleviate crowding. Shifting bodies, though, can only get the school system so far.
For the 2013-14 school year, 13 elementary schools and two high schools are operating at a capacity of 115 percent or more, and the number of schools over enrollment is projected to more than double in the next five years.
As of October, 900 portable classrooms were being used to address capacity issues at schools across the county.
Of those trailers, 19 are at Bailey’s Elementary School in Falls Church. The largest elementary school in the county, Bailey’s currently sits at 33 percent over capacity with more than 1,300 students.
This week, the school system purchased an office building with plans to turn it into a second campus for Bailey’s. The urban-design facility, the first in the county, would likely house the school’s upper grades.
After a year of highly negative campaigning on both sides, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected Virginia’s next governor, defeating Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Libertarian Robert Sarvis. McAuliffe takes office Jan. 11.
Democrats ultimately swept all three statewide offices — state Sen. Ralph Northam will be the new lieutenant governor and Sen. Mark Herring will be the next attorney general — but only after a protracted recount effort in the attorney general’s race.
Following a statewide canvass process, Herring was declared the winner in early December with a 165-vote lead over his Republican opponent, state Sen. Mark Obenshain. Obenshain requested a recount, which ultimately widened Herring’s lead. Obenshain conceded to Herring on Dec. 18.
Special elections will be held in early 2014 to fill Northam’s and Herring’s seats in the state Senate. These races could have bigger political implications, as the Virginia Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with the lieutenant governor on occasion serving as the tie-breaking vote.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th), a mainstay in the region’s congressional delegation since 1981, announced Dec. 17 that he will not seek re-election in 2014.
Wolf said he will continue to work on human rights and religious freedom, issues that he has been passionate about during his time in Congress.
On the local level, Wolf was known for his support for local transportation projects. While he was highly critical of the management of the Dulles Metrorail extension at times, he also used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to help secure $900 million in federal funds for the project.
He also led the effort to combat gang activity in his district, bringing law enforcement agencies together to create the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force.
Fairfax County Public Schools saw a new leader take the helm, as Karen Garza started as superintendent in July.
Garza came from Texas’ Lubbock Independent School District, where she had served as superintendent since 2009, to take over for retiring Superintendent Jack D. Dale.
In Lubbock, Garza oversaw a school district significantly smaller than Fairfax. LISD serves about 30,000 students, comparable in size to Arlington Public Schools. FCPS has a student population of more than 180,000 and growing.
Prior to time in Lubbock, though, Garza served as the chief academic officer of the Houston Independent School District, which serves more than 200,000 students.
The new superintendent worked as an elementary classroom teacher early in her career, and comes with a reputation of being in touch with teachers. Already, Garza has made raising teacher salaries a priority heading into her first budget cycle, despite facing a deficit of more than $130 million.
While the budget for the Lubbock school district is less than $200 million, compared to $2.5 billion for FCPS, Garza has experience with belt-tightening. Before leaving for Fairfax, she had guided LISD through a $14 million reduction in state funds over the past few years.
While other parts of the county’s economy, such as the residential real estate market, began to rebound in 2013, county leaders are keeping tabs on the growing amount of vacant office space in the county.
Presenting his budget forecast for fiscal 2015, County Executive Ed Long said the county’s office vacancy rate has reached levels last seen in the 1990s, about 14 to 17 percent.
This means the value of commercial real estate is expected to stay flat or decline slightly when new assessments are released in 2014, putting more strain on the county’s budget.
Long attributes the decline largely to uncertainty over federal spending, which is inhibiting government contractors and other local businesses from expanding.
Fairfax County Public Library officials faced public outcry this year over proposed changes to the library staffing model, as well as its practice of discarding unwanted books.
In an effort to reduce personnel costs, library administrators had proposed two pilot tests of a new staffing model that would reduce the number of library staff needed. The plan also involved removing the requirement for a master of library science degree for certain positions.
Around the same time that issue was being debated, Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence) discovered a trash receptacle full of discarded books, many of which she considered to still be usable. This led to additional public critique of the library’s policy for discarding volumes it no longer needed to lend to library patrons.
Smyth said that when she heard about the dumping issue, she went to the FCPL Technical Operations Center at the Chantilly Regional Library and had a look for herself. “I went and saw a commercial trash Dumpster filled up to my waist with books. When I went back two days later, the books in that Dumpster were up past my shoulders. I would say there were thousands,” she said.
Smyth said she examined some of the books, including reference books, travel books and children’s books including some of the popular Harry Potter series, and found many of them to be in good condition. “Questions needed to be answered,” she said. “You can have as many policies as you want, but if good books paid for by taxpayer dollars are being thrown away, there is a problem.”
The Library Board of Trustees put a stop to both things at its September meeting and spent the remainder of the year reviewing the related library policies.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Fairfax County Police Department opened its new Tysons Urban Team police unit, the first of its kind in the county. The unit, which moved into its Tysons Corner Center office on Nov. 20, is made up of nine multiskilled officers culled from the Franconia, Mason and McLean district stations. The nine members of the new urban unit will be split into retail crime, community policing, bicycle and rail teams. “Essentially, we will go from having one-officer vehicle patrols to having two-officer mobile patrols, more officers on bicycles, Segways and increased foot patrols,” said the unit’s commander, 2nd Lt. Charles Riddle, 44. “Let’s say for example that there is an incident on the 30th floor of a building,” he said. “With the two-officer mobile patrols, officers will have their backup right there with them instead of waiting for their backup to navigate Tysons traffic trying to get there.”
In January, Reston’s Used Book Shop, in Lake Anne Plaza, celebrated its 35th anniversary.
With the closings of Books-A-Million in Plaza America and Barnes & Noble in the Spectrum Shopping Center, Reston’s Used Book Shop became the last bookstore in Reston — and one of the last few remaining used bookstores in the region.
“We think of ourselves as more than just a bookstore,” said owner Susan Burwell. “We are a community gathering place and also a place for people who like to read to meet others who like to read. One of the nicest compliments I have ever heard about the shop is that it reminded someone of a comfortable living room.”
In February, Centreville’s Spa World became the center of a large-ranging controversy when a transgendered woman claimed she was asked to leave the facility. California resident Riya Suising said she was told by spa management that five spa customers had lodged complaints about her presence. Suising later filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
“I was mortified,” she said. “It was obvious that this business discriminates against any ‘abnormal appearing’ persons, specifically against LGBT people, and likely against anyone else not appearing up to their standards.”
The Better Business Bureau opened an investigation, and on Jan. 28, a Spa World representative responded to the BBB in writing by stating, “It is our policy to not accept any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender(s).”
The spa’s management later said Spa World does not discriminate based on appearance or sexual orientation, and that the representative’s statement had been incorrect and hampered by language translation issues.
In March, three Marshall High School students who garnered a nationwide following on several social media websites by videotaping themselves performing public pranks drew the attention of the Fairfax County Police, who charged the teens with disorderly conduct and destruction of property.
The teens posted online videos of themselves in supermarkets throwing plastic milk gallons into the air and purposely falling to the ground, an act that came to be known as “gallon-smashing.”
The Vienna trio’s video prank was imitated and videotaped numerous times across the U.S., resulting in some supermarket chains issuing statements condemning the prank as dangerous and illegal.
In April, the case of three male students from West Springfield High School who were arrested at the school on child pornography charges resulted in felony charges for the three teens.
The teens were all originally charged with the possession, reproduction, distribution, solicitation and facilitation of child pornography. The charges stemmed from videos of six teenage girls from West Springfield and other area high schools engaged in various sexual acts and stages of undress, all allegedly taken and distributed by the three boys.
Also in April, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the finding of a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge in the rightful possession case of The Falls Church, potentially ending a six-year battle over the church’s ownership between the Episcopal and Anglican churches. Eleven churches broke away from the Episcopal Church in early 2007 to join a more conservative Anglican Church under the auspices of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. The Anglican churches, however, kept the Episcopal Church properties. On April 18, the Virginia Supreme Court — led by an opinion issued by Justice Cleo E. Powell — ruled that The Falls Church did in fact need to be permanently returned to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia.
In September, the Washington Navy Yard shooting resulted in the deaths of 12 victims, including four from Fairfax County. In December, the family of one of those victims — Mary Frances DeLorenzo Knight, 51, of Reston — filed a $37.5 million lawsuit against the Navy and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs alleging that the mental health of shooter Aaron Alexis was not properly evaluated, and that proper security measures were not undertaken. “My sister would want me to fight for her and fight for her girls, so that is what I am going to do and make sure this never happens again,” said DeLorenzo’s younger sister, Patricia DeLorenzo, 38.
In October, after a former teacher and administrator who worked there for 28 years was sentenced for molesting five female students in the 1960s and 1970s, McLean’s elite Potomac School said it would look into allegations by the victims that the school knew about the improprieties and did nothing about them. “Please know that we take these allegations very seriously and will follow up on the issues raised,” said John Kowalik, the school’s head administrator. “We look forward to the opportunity to speak with the victims and hear their concerns.”
In November, Julio Blanco Garcia, the 28-year-old Falls Church man convicted of the premeditated first-degree murder of 19-year-old art student Vanessa Pham in 2010, was sentenced to 49 years in prison.
It was revealed during trial that Blanco-Garcia was high on PCP and was with his 1-year-old daughter when he approached Pham, asking for a ride to a nearby hospital. He said he had been hallucinating and was paranoid, and that when Pham took a wrong turn on the way to the hospital he instinctively and mistakenly thought he and his daughter were in danger. He then admitted to pulling a large butcher knife from his backpack and stabbing her repeatedly.
During trial, a medical examiner testified that Pham suffered 13 stab wounds, including two in the chest that caused her death. The examiner said Pham likely would not have died immediately from those wounds and that she likely tried to fight off her attacker for about 30 seconds before dying, sustaining defensive wounds on her hands. “I am deeply sorry for what I did,” Blanco-Garcia said during his sentencing. “And I hope my punishment will help in the grieving process.”