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Staff, Public to Revamp School Renovation Criteria

Fairfax County School Board disagrees on whether slight changes or drastic shift necessary for system's method

A review of how schools are ranked on Fairfax County Public Schools' building renovation queue will be done through a combination of community input and staff review rather than a task force or independent consultant, board members decided at a work session Monday.

The board develops , which includes new schools, renovations, capacity enhancements, additions and infrastructure management.

Schools receive improvements in the order in which they're ranked on the system's renovation queue, driven by a list of weighted criteria ranging from how the buildings serve "Fundamental Educational Requirements (FER)," including whether they are under or over capacity, to their age and physical condition.

In 2008 when the board last approved its list of criteria, it also agreed to re-evaluate schools in the queue whose projects have not yet been covered in bonds. In the past year, as the board has approached that five-year review period, several members and parents — many of them from Falls Church High School — ; in the case of FCHS, whether a school is over- or under-enrolled.

Sixty-three of FPCS' 194 schools and centers are currently in the queue, FCPS chief operating officer Dean Tistadt said Monday. The new criteria will affect the roughly 40 buildings whose projects aren't covered by bonds issued in 2009, 2011 or 2013.

While board members and schools staff agreed community involvement was crucial at some point in the process, they had different views on whether the board needed to make slight changes to what they have already been doing or more drastically shift their method.

Some board members argued FCPS staff was capable of handling the kind of changes the queue requires.

Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said the largest community complaints are coming from schools currently under-enrolled, a factor they think weighs too heavily in the ranking process.

"Those are very slight things that can adjust slightly, and I think staff is capable of doing that," she said.

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said the way schools are evaluated need a "paradigm shift," one that requires an approach entirely different from what the board has done before — work best done by a consultant.

"We need to come at this from a completely different perspective," Schultz said. "It is an unfair and unreasonable burden to expect staff to completely adapt to a different look at that which they have already done."

Tistadt had proposed a citizen task force early in the process, under the direction of the Facilities Planning Advisory Council. 

The board's decision at Monday's work session abandons that idea — along with giving the task to FPAC, already tasked with developing and updating annually a long-term strategic planning process for FCPS facilities — for a combination of community input and staff review.

Tistadt, while acknowledging the queue's imperfections, stressed it offers a de-politicized method of determining facilities needs. He said there have been few pushbacks from schools currently on the list.

"I don't think we should overreact to the those communities [that are pushing back]," Tistadt said. "This isn't us saying, 'This shouldn't be renovated.' It's us saying, 'We don't have the money to get to you as quickly as we'd like.' ... We don't have the amount of money we need to make renovations so we have to make hard choices."

The five-year plan for 2013-2017, which the board approved in December,  totals $848.5 million — but already doesn't keep pace with aging infrastructure and unprecedented population increasesm Tistadt said this spring. by the 2016-2017 school year, compared ; much of that growth is concentrated in kindergarten and early elementary classes that will rise to already-crowded middle and high schools.

School board members have worried about what that means for a waiting time that is already two to three years long.

To keep up at that pace, let alone move faster, the system would need to complete $205 million a year in improvements and new buildings — $50 million more per year than the current limit allowed through Fairfax County's bond process.

Patty Reed (Providence) said perhaps the board needed to avoid having "big winners and losers" by tackling one school at a time and instead complete smaller, high-priority projects across the county each year, which would spread money over more schools each year.

"I'm not sure that I agree that we're doing things the best way we can given where we are," Reed said. "To me that's a fundamental question: Do we want things to keep going the way they are or do we want to do it differently?"

Ryan McElveen (At-large) said he does not think the eventual changes to the renovation queue would be as significant as the changes to how the renovations are funded.

"And that's a completely different discussion," McElveen said.

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