Plans to speed up the renovation timeline for Falls Church High School remain in limbo as the Fairfax County School Board wrestles with the school system’s construction backlog.
The School Board’s drive to accelerate the high school’s facilities upgrade stalled when confronted with the realities of the scheme, which would delay the renovations of 13 other schools.
The School Board in January directed staff to identify methods of expediting renovations for the county’s five “legacy high schools.” Though the school system aims to renovate schools at least every 25 years, this group of schools - Falls Church, Herndon, Langley, Oakton and West Springfield - were all built around the same time in the 1960s and have never been fully renovated.
Falls Church faces the longest wait of any of these schools, with the start of construction still at least five years away. FCPS staff used Falls Church as a guinea pig to investigate the feasibility of speedier renovations.
The school is scheduled to receive funding for its renovation through the 2019 school bond referendum - if county voters continue to approve the biennial school bond votes.
To move that timeline up by two years, allowing Falls Church to receive funding from the 2017 bond and start its construction sooner, it would need to leapfrog other schools on the waiting list for renovations.
“We simply don’t have a silver bullet to deal with this request,” said Jeff Platenberg, the assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services. “The challenge is, we have these needs that go beyond just one school, even legacy schools.”
The school system contracts independent engineering firms to determine the order of schools for renovation. The last evaluation in 2008 placed 63 schools in a renovation queue based on the age and condition of their facilities, as well as other factors.
Falls Church currently sits at No. 45 on the queue. Accelerating its renovation would move the school up to No. 31.
Platenberg said such “queue jumping” has only occurred once before, when Chantilly High School was renovated out of order in the 1990s due to structural issues with the school building.
Accelerating the timeline for Falls Church would delay renovations at 10 elementary schools and three middle schools by 12-18 months.
Four of the delayed elementary schools - Hybla Valley, Louise Archer, Mosby Woods and Wakefield Forest - were over capacity last year, and renovations would help relieve overcrowding.
School Board member Sandy Evans (Masons) floated the idea that high school renovations could take precedence, as they impact a larger number of students.
“To me, it would seem that renovating high schools would have a greater educational impact,” Evans said.
Yet faced with the consequences of prioritizing Falls Church’s construction, the School Board chose to table the issue for now.
“I don’t feel like I have the authority to go back to these schools and tell them they’re being pushed back on the queue,” said School Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mills) “I think we first need to have a conversation about our priorities for renovation.”
Several School Board members agreed with Hynes that a larger discussion of the school system’s renovation schedule was necessary before taking action even to assist legacy high schools such as Falls Church.
“I believe that we and previous boards have created the issue of a sacrosanct queue that isn’t necessarily the best practice,” said School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield).