Friday, July 31, 2015

RFP Released

The final RFP for the redevelopment of the George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson site was released yesterday.  The final RFP, supporting documents, and a short history of the project are available at this site.   This includes a video of the visioning session and the presentation from the July 11 town hall meeting.  Kudos to the City for collecting and providing this information.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Key Points on the RFP from the School Board/City Council Joint Session on July 27

As I and others have written, both the School Board and the City Council approved the release of the RFP for the George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson expansion last night, the School Board 6-0 and the City Council 6-1.  The Falls Church News Press story summary of the meeting is a good one, noting that the two main points of discussion were first about ensuring that a public referendum would be held before signing any contract, and second what the RFP should say about commercial versus mixed commercial-residential development.  Letty Hardi also provided a great description of the recommendation discussion.  Here are my thoughts on the debate.

The public referendum discussion was very important, not just because City residents need a direct say in a project that will significantly affect them for decades, but also because City staff made clear that public participation in the RFP process, until any referendum, will be minimal.  The controlling Virginia statute, and the guidelines adopted by the City and Schools, provide not only that “trade secrets” and financial information be kept confidential, but also that virtually anything that a company responding to the RFP thinks might be unhelpful to its bid be kept confidential as well, protecting: “other information submitted by the private entity, where, if the records were made public … the financial interest or bargaining position of the public or private entity would be adversely affected.”  There may be some discretion for City and School staff to deny a request for confidentiality, but based on what was said during the meeting last night and general Virginia guidelines, that is unlikely to lead to disclosure of information over the objection of the company submitting the information.  So, while there will be periods for public comment and a public hearing, the public may only see the executive summaries of the proposals.  The real decisions, except for a referendum, will be made in closed sessions.

While that result may be legally required, it irks me, and it may make you unhappy as well.  I urge the Council and the School Board to make every effort to have companies responding the RFP disclose as much as possible.  Of course, companies will want to protect their innovative ideas, but confidentiality should be minimized while preserving innovation.

The second issue discussed was what the RFP should say about the type of commercial development desired – what should be said about mixed commercial and residential uses on the GM/MEH site?  As I wrote in an earlier post, the argument seems to be between those who want bidders to offer the most money to the City to minimize taxes, and are willing to accept mixed commercial and residential development, and those who want commercial development only with little if any residential development.  At the end, the Council and School Board agreed on compromise language that the development must be “significantly commercial,” if I heard properly. 

As I implied in my earlier post, this is a tempest in a teapot because the Council and Board will be able consistent with the RFP to select among proposals, and in this case, decide what “significant” means.  If faced with deciding between a proposal that features apartments above ground-floor retail that fully funds a new high school, as opposed to a proposal for an entertainment facility that instead requires an additional $50 million from city taxpayers to pay for the new school, the hard decision will need to be made.  But because under this process the facts of the proposals may not be available to the public (including officials whose terms have ended), describing development preferences in evaluation criteria is of elevated importance as one of the best ways for people to influence decisions that will otherwise be made behind closed doors.

Which takes me back to the first point.  The City Council and School Board should use their best effort to encourage the sharing of as much information as possible, so we don’t see a referendum in a year and a half that proposes development that the people of Falls Church don’t want.  

More Information on Mt. Daniel, but no Plan B

Some additional detail is now available on the reasons the Fairfax County Planning Commission deferred its decision on the Mt. Daniel expansion until September, at the request of FCCPS.  Superintendent Jones on Friday published an update that explains the steps the FCCPS took to obtain approval, and why it asked to have the matter deferred – in short, because there was insufficient time for the Fairfax County commissioners to study the material produced by FCCPS, and FCCPS also wanted to prepare material to answer additional questions.  You can find Dr. Jones’ report here:

Dr. Jones also talked about Plan A to obtain additional space for elementary school facilities – doing additional work to obtain the approval of the Fairfax County Planning Commission for Mt. Daniel.  I believe this is right – considerable resources have already been committed both in design and in funding the plan through a bond referendum – and other options likely bring even more delay and temporary overcrowding.  Even so, the likelihood of success is at best unclear.  Dr. Jones spoke about working with the Mt. Daniel neighbors and legal counsel to try to get the project moving, but the questions from School Board members regarding what would be done differently in order to obtain approval were unanswered.  I might summarize Plan A as “work harder and provide time for further review.”  One School Board member thought success was not close to being assured.

With this uncertainty, two School Board members spoke the need for alternative solutions, or a Plan B.  But no Plan B was discussed, at least in the open session (there was another closed session for the stated purpose of consulting with legal counsel, and I do not know what was discussed in that session).  Hope is not a strategy.  Thomas Jefferson was recently expanded, but not to a sufficient size that would allow 2nd grade to remain there for long given enrollment projections, and I suspect expanding TJ again might be very expensive or impossible.  The Request for Proposals for the George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson expansion project has just been released, but without any language that would obtain proposals for adding an additional grade or two at the MEH site as an option – it is likely that adding that option in the future would cause further delay.

It’s time to start work on a Plan B now, even with the possibility that the Fairfax County Planning Commission might approve the current expansion plans.  Developing a strategy now could help reduce delay should the Planning Commission vote “no.”  And some options, such as an another RFP seeking to swap the Mt. Daniel land for other land and construction of an Elementary School within Falls Church City, could take some time.  I do not know if that particular option is feasible, but at least some brainstorming of possibilities is worthwhile.

Now for the good news – Dr. Jones said at last night’s School Board meeting that with the large class of rising 2nd graders moving to Thomas Jefferson, and the likely smaller class of kindergartners, Mt. Daniel may get its music room back next year.  A small victory, but a valuable one.

School Board and City Council Action on the RFP

Monday evening, July 27, into Tuesday morning the City Council and School Board discussed the request for proposal for expansion of George Mason High School and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.  The two bodies met in joint session to edit the documents, and then separately to vote on them (and on other matters).  The School Board approved 6-0  a resolution releasing the RFP.  The draft is here:$file/Resolution06-15GM.MEH.RFP.pdf.  School Board members believed the City Council also approved a resolution to release the RFP by a 6-1 vote.  That would mean that the RFP would be formally released in just a few days.

The two biggest issues in the discussion were the degree of public participation in the process in the future, and what the language should be regarding how proposals for mixed commercial and residential uses would be viewed.  I'll write more about that tomorrow.

In the later School Board only session, the Superintendent gave a report on Mt. Daniel.  I'll also write more about that tomorrow.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mt. Daniel

Here is a FCNP article specifically focused on the difficulties with the Mt. Daniel Construction project, noting comments by Erin Gill​, Letty Hardi​, Jacob Radcliff, Justin Castillo,  and me.

For clarity, I said that the parties involved needed to push to obtain approval of the Mt. Daniel construction by the Fairfax County Planning Commission, but because that was uncertain, a step needed to be taken immediate to preserve the ability to put an additional grade or two on the GM/MEH site, if that becomes the best option.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

George Mason Expansion has some Cracks in the Foundation; No News on Mt. Daniel

On Monday, July 20, the Falls Church City School Board and City Council had very long meeting – around 5 hours in joint session with the City Council continuing afterward.  The joint session was focused on the Request for Proposals (RFP) to replace or renovate George Mason High School and expand Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.  You can find the Falls Church News Press story on the joint session here:

The bottom line is (1) there was no news on the Mt. Daniel expansion; and (2) as the FCNP and Mr. Benton say in the above article, most of the issues remaining ought to be drafting issues, with one important possible exception.  Please also note that the School Board meeting for tonight has been cancelled, presumably because the RFP isn’t ready for a vote.

With regard to Mt. Daniel, last night’s meeting was focused on the RFP, and there was no discussion during the open session of the proposals to consider including language in the RFP that might give the City and Schools more options with regard to meeting the needs of elementary students.  There was no other substantive discussion of Mt. Daniel either, which is (mostly) not an RFP issue.  I can’t tell you what was discussed in the closed session.  And because tonight’s School Board meeting was cancelled, there won’t be an opportunity for further discussion by it tonight.

Turning to the RFP, I was not present for the initial discussion in which the School Board and City Council decided to go into closed session, but Erin Gill, Letty Hardi, and Jake Radcliff were, so if there is more to tell I am sure they will.  Regardless, it seems to me that a three-hour closed meeting exceeds what one could reasonably expect would be discussed without the public present.  I do hope we will see as much transparency as possible going forward.  [Of course, I wasn’t in the closed session so I don’t know if the topics warranted three hours.]

On the substance of the RFP, as the FCNP says, a lot of time was used discussing relatively smaller drafting issues which, while important to get right, should not prevent moving forward if all parties work toward reasonable compromise.  The key other issue, identified by the FCNP, is what KIND of development should be requested in the RFP for the up to 10+ acres allowed for commercial uses.   Much of the discussion centered on part of a sentence in the RFP, that says “The City prefers development proposals that (i) feature exemplary design and ‘place-making’ architecture and amenities; (ii) have a an  [sic] appropriate ratio of commercial uses relative to residential uses; … .”  While there was a lot of discussion, the greatest controversy was around “appropriate ratio” of commercial as opposed to “residential issues.”  My take on the discussion is that some members of the City Council believe that this language signals that more mixed-use development with ground-floor retail and apartments/condos above, similar to what has been elsewhere in Falls Church City, are just fine, when in fact the City really wants something very different, like a hotel or entertainment facility.

In one sense, this should be a small issue.  I think everyone agrees that as much commercial development as possible, and especially commercial development that would enhance our City, such as another entertainment venue, would be ideal.  There should be language the captures this intent and leaves the City free to select the best proposal among those submitted.  Perhaps the paragraph that includes the above language could say instead (see the bottom of this post for the original paragraph):

“Redevelop up to 10.38 acres of the Parcels for commercial or mixed uses in a manner that maximizes (i) the financial value of the property to the City and the School Board; (ii) the tax yield to the City and other financial benefits to the School Board and the City; (iii) place-making amenities, enhancements to the property, and benefits to the surrounding community including economic development; (iv) exemplary design features and “place-making” architecture; (ii) “place-making” commercial uses that add value to the community; (v) high-quality, effective transportation improvements for access to, from, and through the site (for all modes of travel, including pedestrian); and (iv) environmentally responsible and sustainable design.”

This treats all these factors as important, and requires that they be maximized. It probably goes a bit overboard on “place-making.”  It leaves bidders, however, free to choose innovate approaches to work to address all these needs.  And there are plenty of other ways to forge compromise language.  So there isn’t any reason the RFP should not be issued shortly if everyone works together.

All that said, the above dispute highlights that there are cracks in the foundation of the George Mason expansion project.  There is significant disagreement among the City Council and School Board members about what sort of commercial development should take place on the 10+ acres.  Is choosing a proposal about the highest-value commercial use that pays the most to the City, or about establishing something of unique value to the City?  Push will come to shove if there are, for example, a proposal that features apartments above ground floor retail that fully funds a new high school, versus a proposal for an entertainment facility for the city that instead requires an additional $50 million from city taxpayers to pay for the new school.  However, in my opinion this is a fight that should be put off, because the City doesn’t have the information it needs yet; only when alternative proposals are made can the costs and benefits be weighed of different proposals.

One last note – one council member did express concern that the process of soliciting proposals from developers for different, innovative proposals, under the “PPEA” may not be the best one to use, but that didn’t seem to get much uptake at this time.  City Council members were, however, concerned that the document could not be finalized last night, and so there will be a new draft, and the School Board cancelled it’s meeting for tonight, I assume because there is no new language to review yet.

Please comment or send me an email, to, if you have a question.

P.S. Here is the current version of the paragraph revised above:

“Redevelop up to 10.38 acres of the Parcels for commercial or mixed uses in a manner that maximizes (i) the financial value of the property to the City and the School Board; (ii) the tax yield to the City and other financial benefits to the School Board and the City; and (iii) enhancements to the property and surrounding community. The City prefers development proposals that (i) feature exemplary design and “place-making” architecture and amenities; (ii) have a an [sic] appropriate ratio of commercial uses relative to residential uses; (iii) provide high-quality, effective transportation improvements for access to, from, and through the site (for all modes of travel, including pedestrian); and (iv) feature an environmentally responsible and sustainable design.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

My Campaign Video

Here is the School Board campaign video I recorded at FCC-TV recently - you can watch it to learn more about me and the issues that concern me.  It will be broadcast on local cable access channels and available on the FCCTV Youtube channel.

Joint Session on the RFP

The joint session of the City Council to discuss the "RFP" for George Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson is tonight. If you have comments, you might want to email your School Board and City Council representatives.

The School Board is currently set to vote it's approval for release of the RFP at its meeting tomorrow. The draft resolution is here:…/$f…/Resolution06-15GM.MEH.RFP.pdf.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mount Daniel, Plan B and the “RFP”

With the approval of Fairfax County Planning Commission of the Mt. Daniel expansion called into question, there needs to be a “Plan B” for addressing the need for expanded facilities for elementary students.  One action that can be taken now is to add flexibility to the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the new high school so that, if necessary, an additional grade or two could be located at the George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson site.

For example, until recently 5th grade was at Mary Ellen Henderson (MEH).  One backup plan might be to have a smaller Mt. Daniel expansion plan that would make it suitable for the growing K-1 classes, and instead of moving 2nd grade from Thomas Jefferson (TJ) to Mt. Daniel, moving 5th grade back to MEH from TJ.  Not the best thing of course – my kids were in the first 5th grade class at TJ and that was great – but a better option than overcrowded classrooms.  The School Administration and Board will of course decide on the best backup plan, in coordination with the City Council.

If having a larger MEH is an option for consideration, the RFP could include an “Add Alternate” now to get proposal from multiple companies.  Note that the RFP already asks for plans to expand the size of MEH from 600 to 1000 students.  As an example, the RFP could seek proposals for adding an additional grade to MEH by saying:

“ADD ALTERNATE – ADDITIONAL GRADE AT Mary Ellen Henderson – The Project includes an add alternate for the design and construction services to add an additional grade to MEH and meet the Building Program and requirements contained in the Education Specification, Requirements for Grade 6‐8 Middle School and Middle School Level of Quality and Guide Specifications for the construction of an addition to the existing Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.  The Project includes all associated utilities, stormwater management, landscaping, tree preservation, floodplain verification, parking, and any other site improvements necessary to meet permit requirements.  The addition shall be compatible architecturally with the existing facility.  The attachments shall be the same as for the Mary Ellen Henderson scope of work, except for increasing the number of classrooms and work rooms by one-third.”  [This language would likely be longer and more detailed.]

Language of this sort would give the Schools and City flexibility in the future without additional delay, depending on what happens regarding Mt. Daniel.  Similar language could be used for two grades, or other options.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Update - RFP Discussion on Monday to be Open

I am informed that the discussion of the RFP for the GM/MEH expansion project will be now be open.  My understanding is that the meeting will begin with a closed session for confidential matters, and then there be an open meeting/work session to edit the RFP.  I think that's the right decision by the Council and Board.

The City Council page says the meeting will be at 7:30 pm on July 20, while the School Board page says 7:00 pm.  I think the time is 7:30 pm (and not 7 pm), and the closed session will come first.  That means the open, editing session will begin later that evening, but at an unpredictable time - perhaps 9 pm but it could be earlier or later.

The meeting is currently scheduled for the Dogwood Room at City Hall, but I wonder if it may be moved now to Chambers if the editing session will be public.

My thanks to Council and Board for opening the planned final joint meeting on the RFP.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Keep the School Planning Process Open

The School Board work session and meeting on July 14 dealt with many topics – I will concentrate on the upcoming Request for Proposals (RFP), to be issued soon, that asks companies to propose a plan for construction of a new high school, expanding the middle school, and commercially developing about 10 acres of the current high school/middle school site.  The bottom line for me is that the process has been relatively open so far, and that further steps should be taken to keep it that way.

Two other matters first.  There is a hearing tonight before the Fairfax County Planning Commission regarding the Mt. Daniel construction project – a key matter.    Second, the School Administration provided the School Board with future enrollment projections, including how past and current multi-unit development are affecting school enrollment.  The background documents are here under agenda item 8.05 (or email me and I will email them to you – will work):

The discussion of the RFP was long, with much of it related to parking – a discussion that had limited result that one sentence about parking would be removed from the Scope of Work document that is part of the RFP.  Members expressed a desire not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and to move forward to issue the RFP with limited additional fine tuning of the document.  In my view, the greater concern at the moment is not the actual text but the process as we move forward.  So far, the process has been relatively open – certainly it is not common practice to have this degree of discussion regarding a prospective contract with a developer – and having that open process has been useful.  That said, this RFP concerns a development decision that will determine the character of Falls Church City for the next generation, and it requires continued openness and broad discussion for the best possible decision.  I think that open process is at risk.

Here are two examples that concern me.  First, in the latest draft of the RFP the language indicating that there would be a public hearing this Fall on the developers’ initial, conceptual proposals, was removed, leaving only a single public hearing on the short-listed, final proposals in April of 2016.  That limits public participation.  Second, the latest draft of the RFP, and the School Board and City Council comments on it (the School Board asked its members to provide any final comments on the RFP by noon this Friday), may go initially only to School Board and City Council members, and the joint meeting – on Monday, July 20 – to discuss and agree on a final RFP is planned to be a closed meeting not open to the public.  Of course, both the School Board and City Council would then hold open meetings to approve the RFP, but those meetings are likely to involve up or down votes, and it is unlikely that further changes to the RFP will be considered.  So the last drafting meeting on the RFP would be closed to the public.  And while documents provided to the Board and Council are likely to be made public eventually, providing them in a timely way would enable public participation.

I have two suggestions. 

  •           Publish any new RFP draft or collated list of Board and Council comments to the public, and open the joint Board and Council meeting on July 20 for that portion involving proposed changes to the RFP.  I understand that there may be matters concerning the RFP that must be discussed in private, but the discussion of the actual text of the RFP should be public.
  •           If legally possible, hold a public hearing on the conceptual proposals in November of this year, before the short-listed developer proposals are identified, to enable public input on the proposals.  Of course, it may be that developers won’t share much of their ideas, but not sharing something about their proposals would put them at a disadvantage to those developers who do share their proposals.  That’s a good thing.

As always, please let me know if you want any of the background documents or more detail, or have comments.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

School Bus Cameras

One of the advantages of small city and school system is the ability to be agile. The Washington Post just ran a story about cameras being installed on school buses in Arlington to catch drivers to pass the buses while their stop sign is out. See, and page 3 of the print edition. Falls Church passed that program a bit ago - the first jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to do so, thanks to Stephanie Oppenheimer and the parents who supported her (including my wife), and the schools, the police, and the city.…/03d1a482-6a5b-11e2-ada3-d86…

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Visioning Report on the High School Expansion Project, the Request for Proposals for that, and other items from the July 7 School Board/City Council Meeting

Last night I and a number of others attended the joint meeting of the School Board and the City Council, each of which then met separately.  I stayed in the School Board meeting.

The joint session focused on the report from the team that talked to stakeholders about the possibilities for expanding the high school and middle school, given the land added to Falls Church as part of the water settlement, and the request for proposals concerning the high and middle school expansion project, especially the timeline.  The intent is to renovate and expand these schools, minimizing costs to the City by commercially developing a part of the site.

The visioning report was much what you would expect.  While there was no consensus about the style of the building, most were comfortable with a 4-6 story building (as opposed to the current one-story high school) in order to have more green space and allow for commercial development.  There was a lot of interest in facilities that could and would be used by the community, such as a pool, larger gym, and theater, but each requires a balancing of costs and benefits.  There was consensus around the need for better access for bikes and walkers, and cars, but getting a new traffic signal on Route 7 will be very difficult.  Last, there was consensus on the use of sustainable design principles, but no consensus on the need for LEED certification – this is a topic for further discussion.

The joint session then turned to the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the school expansion project.  The plan is to request ideas and initial plans from the private sector under Virginia’s Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act, which allows private entities to design, renovate, and expand facilities and encourages innovation in financing.  In short, the City and schools would use commercial development of part of the site would allow for school improvement and expansion that the City and schools could not otherwise afford.  I won’t go through all of the details of the discussion of the timeline and RFP, but it involves issuing the RFP this month, having two rounds of proposals, at least one public hearing in April 2016, and informing the selected proposer to proceed in December 2016.  There will be an open meeting to provide further information to the public this Saturday morning.  You can find the full draft RFP here:

Two of the main items were ensuring that that was strong public and stakeholder participation and input, and that the RFP not limit the potential bidders to a predetermined approach.   Council and school board members wanted to go as far as possible in sharing information from the proposals with the public, while understanding that the law will require that certain information be kept confidential to protect the bidders and ensure innovative proposals.   On the point of allowing innovation, the School Board in its later session talked about modifying the RFP to allow proposers the freedom to suggest renovation of George Mason rather than full replacement.  That said, the estimate that the School Board received indicates that renovation would cost about $95 million dollars – in the same ballpark as replacement – but not allow for commercial development to pay for the renovation.$file/GMHS%20Renovation%20Estimate%2006-25-15r%20(2).pdf.

The RFP was to be released in a week on July 15.  If I understood correctly, that has been now moved to July 30 to allow more time to finalize the document.  There would be about a two-week delay in submission of proposals, but was projected to not otherwise affect the overall schedule.

Please let me know if you have any comments or want any more information.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Internet Safety – Homework for Summer

Internet safety is a subject that concerns us all.  Parents want to protect their kids at school as effectively as the parents can at home, and our teachers and schools want to protect our kids online just as they protect their physical safety.

This is an area where the schools are making very good progress.   I understand that for some time, the schools have invested in state-of-the-art filtering technology to limit student access to inappropriate material.  No filter works perfectly, but this is a key tool to help protect kids.   I’d like to suggest that the schools take on a few items of “homework” over the summer be improve what they are already doing.

First, the schools should implement different filtering regimes based on student age, at least.  That is, different standards should be applied to what can be viewed by, for example, kindergartners and twelfth graders.  I believe that the schools are developing the means to do this, and plan to at least be able to adjust filtering by school (elementary, middle, and high school) come the fall.  Doing so would make a big difference.

Second, the schools should implement a mandatory process to review the filtering regime periodically.  For example, some sites are “whitelisted” – that is, specifically allowed because they are necessary for an educational purpose although access to the site would otherwise be blocked by the filtering technology used.  I believe that the schools have a good process to review a site before it is put on the whitelist, and the schools should support that process by regularly reviewing the sites that have been previously whitelisted and blacklisted (that is, specifically blocked), as well as the general levels of filtering applied, at all grade levels.  Parent representatives should be included on the group that reviews the filtering rules.

Third, I know both the school system and the parents want to support the teachers.  I suspect we are asking our teachers and administrators to do too much monitoring in the classroom and otherwise.  We want our teachers teaching, and using technology to improve what they do, rather than having to watch screens to see what every student is doing.  Corporations don’t ask managers to walk the office looking to see if every person is using his or her computer for business purposes only.  If it can be afforded, I’d suggest that the schools hire a person for the information technology staff to monitor computer use by students.  This would allow more rapid identification of problems, such as an increase in traffic to a questionable site, and could even identify some issues, such as students finding ways to avoid the schools’ filtering technology, before they become a problem.  Such a person could work to produce more reporting about how computers are being used, providing greater transparency to teachers and parents.  This staff member could also perform more systems security monitoring, increasing the protection of school systems from attack.  Of course, money is always a concern.

And for parents, you might find this set of tips helpful:

Let me know what you think of these ideas.  Enjoy the week.