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How to Find Classroom Space?

Using Auditor Funds for Independent Consultant

Fairfax County Public Schools are facing a countywide deficit of 500 elementary-school classrooms, 2,600 middle-school spaces and 2,034 high-school spaces according to the 2006-2007 school-year enrollment projections.

The school system is also looking at a capital improvement plan (CIP) that falls $250 million short in fully funding needed projects over the next five years and has a $660 million deficit over the next eight years.

In response, the schools staff is looking into alternative funding options which could include public-private partnerships, school leasing and selling off undeveloped or underutilized properties.

The problem is where should the funding come from to hire an independent consultant to take a fresh look at the school system's assets.

A FEBRUARY OPEN FORUM to discuss ideas on how the school system could speed up school construction and renovations without relying on bond money drew 52 people representing 40 firms.

Now the staff wants to hire a consultant to review the system's business practices including looking at all properties free of any restrictive covenants and evaluating their best uses. The consultant would then work with staff to craft a request for proposals from the private sector to get the work done, whether that is razing an old building and starting over or swapping the system's property for more useful property somewhere else.

Staff is suggesting transferring the $130,000 in the School Board's budget for an auditor to facilities for use to hire the consultant.

Some School Board members, while supporting the idea of a consultant, are bristling at the idea of taking the auditor money, possibly setting the stage for a politically charged debate.

"I'm concerned that the first thought is to move the auditor money," said Mychele Brickner (At Large). "I think it's an attempt to remove the auditor position. I don't think $130,000 will cover a study of this magnitude."

THE SCHOOL BOARD auditor position was created and filled about five years ago. The auditor reported directly to and at the discretion of the School Board. Having an auditor became a political issue after an audit report labeled a reserve fund as a surplus. The Democratic-endorsed members voted not to renew the auditor's contract.

Last fiscal year, the auditor was eventually transferred to another position within the school system and the $130,000 salary and $30,000 for benefits were used to help bolster the programs budget. The position remains vacant.

While the staff is suggesting using the funds, it is not yet known how expensive an independent consultant would be.

"We don't have numbers on the cost," said Charles Woodruff, the school system's chief financial officer. "Clearly there are firms out there who can do the work. But when you talk about cost, it could be a one-time fee, on an hourly basis or a fee structure based on construction value."

What the staff has shelved for now is hopes of consolidating all the administrative offices into one complex similar to the County Government Center in Fairfax.

"This is not a study to build an administrative center. We don't have the funding for it," said schools superintendent Daniel Domenech. "What we do have is a lot of lots and a lot of buildings all over the county. We will bring in someone to look at what we own to see what can be swapped in exchange for building new schools."

Domenech said for example, the Edsall Park property in Springfield which houses human resources could be razed and rebuilt as a school. The human resources staff in turn could be consolidated to another building.

LIKE BRICKNER, at-large board member Rita Thompson said she favored the concept of the study but was concerned that staff could not provide a ballpark figure for the cost and that the money would come from the auditor funds.

"Why can't we get a ballpark figure before we decide if we are going to allocate the money?" she said. "The concept of a study I agree with. Whether to use the auditor money is a separate issue for me."

With the exception of Brickner and Thompson, who have reservations about the study's funding source but did not shoot down the consultant proposal altogether, the other Republican-endorsed board members seem to be willing to forgo filling the auditor position for another year in favor of pursuing the study.

"This is a one-year borrowing of the auditor funds. I think this is something we need to have, an outside look," said Christian Braunlich (Lee)."

Tessie Wilson (Braddock) said that while the study is needed, the auditor position needs to be made a priority with the board.

"I'm willing to go along with this for one more year. It seems every year the board finds some reason to use the school board auditor fund," Wilson said "The position is something we need."