Schools Request More Building Funding From Supervisors
Board member says $25 million more in annual capital funding limit necessary to keep pace with student growth
With the approval of its $848.5 million five-year capital improvement plan Thursday night, the Fairfax County School Board said it will also ask county supervisors to increase its capital funding limit from $155 million to $180 million starting next fiscal year.
The motion, made by member Ilryong Moon (At-large), came after a work session Monday in which FCPS chief operating officer Dean Tistadt said the system would need $205 million a year in improvements, new buildings and renovations to keep pace with aging infrastructure and student enrollment growth — $50 million more per year than the current limit.
Total enrollment could reach 189,000 students by the 2016-2017 school year; much of that growth is concentrated in kindergarten and early elementary classes that will eventually rise to already-crowded middle and high schools, Tistadt said.
The increase would not grant bonding authority, but would give the system the cash flow it needs to address repairs, renovations and improvements "in a more timely way," Board Chair Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said. The cash flow limit has remained at $155 million since 2007, Moon said.
"It is a fiscally restrained first step to provide the learning and teaching environment that our students and teachers need and deserve," Moon said.
He said the extra funding would accelerate the renovations at many schools that have been waiting for "far too long." Currently, the waiting time on the queue for renovations or improvements is two to three years, he said Thursday night.
"That's simply not adequate," he said.
But the request, which passed 9-3, didn't sit well with some members of the board, who agreed the system needed help improving its facilities but worried the approach came before a thorough discussion, and, wasn't inclusive of supervisor or resident input.
Kathy Smith (Sully), who voted in favor of the request, worried about its timing on the heels of a proposed $135.4 million increase in the county's transfer to the schools' operating fund in Superintendent Jack Dale's fiscal year 2013 budget plan.
"This motion doesn’t start any dialogue. It bypasses all dialogue. It bypasses dialogue among the public, dialogue among ourselves and dialogue with the board of supervisors," said Member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who voted against Moon's motion with Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) and Patty Reed (Providence).
In maintaining its AAA-bond rating, the county has met two fiscal requirements: keeping the percentage of its combined general fund disbursements below 10 percent, and, keeping the total net debt as a percentage of estimated yearly property market value below 3 percent.
According to data Moon requested from the county after Monday's work session, his proposal would keep those numbers under 10 percent and at 1.18 percent, respectively.
From FY 2002 to FY 2012, Fairfax County issued about $2.4 billion in bonds. Of this amount, about $1.5 billion (63 percent) was sold for the schools and another $901 million (37 percent) was sold for the county.
"Ensuring our schools are able to meet the needs of our growing population is critical. We must, however, also remain sensitive to the taxpayer and mindful of capital needs, such as transportation, libraries and public safety, in addition to our schools," Fairfax County Board Chair Sharon Bulova wrote in an email on Friday. She said school facility needs will be included in the board’s FY 2013 budget discussion.
School Board members who voted for the motion said it was simply a request, a way to explore opportunities and perhaps put the issue on the agenda for the Feb. 25 retreat between the two boards.
"If you don't ask, you don't get," said Member Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon), who noted pushing more projects through the queue now would take advantage of historically low construction costs and interest rates.
The increase in funding could change the way schools move through the renovation queue, as could future board plans to examine the standards used to place schools on it. Keeping the queue in place for the entirety of the five-year project may not be the best way to reach the schools that need it most, some school board members said at the Monday work session.
Sandy Evans (Mason) said she and several other board members were particularly worried about the condition of Falls Church High School, and how it earned its placement in the approved queue.
"[There are questions about] how that school can maintain itself between now and when it gets a renovation," Evans said Thursday. "We need to make sure we're assessing properly and that we are using the best criteria possible."
It plans to review criteria sometime in the next year, after the recently formed Fairfax Planning Advisory Council (FPAC), a group of 13 county residents tasked with developing and updating annually a long-term strategic planning process for FCPS facilities, delivers its plan to the board in June.
Ryan McElveen (at-large) said as a student at a dilapidated Marshall High School in the early 2000s, he understood how urgent revising that criteria, and securing more funding, were to student learning and creating a positive, productive environment.
The school is now, about a decade later, in the midst of renovations.
"We have to remember that [students are] sitting in classrooms that are 50 years old, they're sitting in buildings that are falling down. Our teachers are having to teach in these classrooms that have molded carpets, ceilings that are falling apart, HVAC systems that are blowing up," McElveen said. "We should no longer have to put our students have to put our students through [that]. It's an urgent problem."
This article has been updated.