Wednesday, April 13, 2016

School Board Vote on Campus Redevelopment

On Tuesday, April 12, the School Board turned to the campus redevelopment process. The prior night the City Council had delayed proceeding to the next phase - issuing the request for detailed proposals - to allow more time for discussion and community input.
I agree that we should not proceed without additional community input. But I have also concluded that the current RFP process is a bad deal for the City, and continuing costs money and time that could be used for better alternatives. Therefore, I offered a motion to end the RFP process, and go in a different direction. That motion failed by a 2-4 vote, with Erin Gill and I voting for my motion.
I understand the desire of a majority of the School Board to continue the process, and that view is reasonable. However, I think we are more likely to get a new high school more quickly if we change direction. I welcome your comments, and my thanks to all of you who have already provided them to the School Board and City Council. I have inserted my remarks from last night's meeting below.
Thank you.
I oppose and have opposed proceeding to phase two of the RFP.
  • Cost: With only two bidders, I think that the City (schools and general government) lack leverage to get the best deal and the best school. With only two bidders, we cannot expect to have much competition on school construction costs, nor will the options presented for development be as broad as more competition might achieve.
  • Options: With one process involving both schools and development, I also think we will have less ability to control the details of either, because a larger set of choices will be rolled together in choosing proposer A vs proposer B (in short, we can’t pick the best school and the best development, because we have to pick both together). A joint PPEA process also appears inherently more private and less public than the process should be. The calls we are receiving for more public participation can be better met in a decoupled process.
  • Mt. Daniel: Also, I remain concerned that with Mt. Daniel still undecided, we will face more resistance to a new bond issue, and we may be alienating land we need in the future for school expansion.
And, of course, with only two bidders, there is a real risk that one or both might drop out, reducing the City's ability to get what it wants from the school or development, and perhaps ending the process entirely with further delay.
We are not without options. My suggestion is the following:
First, proceed with a smaller school program. The new high school could be built smaller or with reduced features, but built with the plan to expand and enhance once the MEH debt comes off the City’s balance sheet. My understanding is that an $80M school could be built with 8.5 cents on the tax rate. That amount could be reduced even further by building a capital reserve, selling land for development, or other means. The smaller school program could be a design and then build process, or a new but school-only PPEA process.
Second, start now an inclusive process with the City Council, Planning Commission, and the public to propose a new school facilities plan if the Mt. Daniel plan is not approved by Fairfax County. How do we get the land for a new elementary school if the Mt. Daniel site isn’t viable in the long term?
Third, start a separate process to consider sale of up to 10 acres of land on which George Mason currently sits. For example, the Council/Planning Commission/Schools group could look again at sale or development of property, but not limited to 2 proposals and not held hostage by the need to get money to build a school. The group could also look at whether any sale could be accompanied by a land exchange to obtain additional land (for schools or parks) that presents less commercial development opportunity.
Fourth, once the Mary Ellen Henderson comes off the City’s book in around 2026, plan to expand and enhance the high school.
It has been my view for some time that we should end this PPEA process. I hold that view based on the number of bidders, and while I will not discuss the specifics of either proposal, nothing in them changes my mind. Continuing down this process continues to cost money and waste time that could be used to build a high school sooner and cheaper.
Of course, I could be wrong. It may be that this process will result in a good deal for City, giving it a great high school at a reasonable price and the development it wants. If so, I will be very happy. But hope is not a strategy, and that outcome seems unlikely to me. Therefore, I do not support continuing with the detailed request for proposals.
(These are my personal views and not the official statement or records of the Board. They are not minutes but my personal summary of some of the highlights from the meeting.)


  1. Phil, I think the key here is that we need a new school soon or we'll be sinking more money into a school that isn't going to last forever (or even much longer). Some will debate the need for a new school - I guess we could have that debate but for the sake of the issue at hand I'm going to say we need a new school.

    It sounds like the fundamentals of your plan are to build an $80M high school via an 8.5 cent tax increase. I don't think that's necessarily a bad plan but we'd need to know ASAP what an $80M high school looks like. If it would be big enough to fit our students and have the appropriate amenities then let's plow ahead and get that done ASAP. I don't think we have time to build a capital reserve, which would require a tax hike anyway, so we have to be ready to take on the 8.5 cents as soon as possible.

    If we have the willingness to take on the extra tax now to build the school then we'll have a variety of options for how to generate revenue from the freed up land that the current high school is on. It will take time for that process to yield anything - but I think within 10 years of building the high school we could start seeing a return on any development that goes in on the remaining land. In the meantime, development in other parts of the City could also help us reduce the 8.5 cent hike.

    But, for a plan like this to work we need to know for sure if an $80M school will be acceptable. We also need to know that the citizens will be willing to take on a big tax increase, right now, to make it happen.

    1. Andy. I agree with much of what you have to say. My main concern is delay, and I don't think this PPEA process will yield a result that will include a new high school. I'd like to start a new, open planning process with the City Council and the Planning Commission ASAP.