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.

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