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Lack of Funds Curtails CIP Discussion

Low Turnout for CIP Hearing

Compared to years past, the School Board's foray into the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) approval process is a cake walk this time around.

In mid December, the county schools staff released a CIP that identified $664.2 million in needed renovations, additions and new construction, of which $379.73 million is unfunded, over the next five years. The total cost of the CIP, over the next 10 years, is estimated at $1.95 billion.

The school system is restricted to a yearly $130 million spending cap by the county, which sells the bonds that fund the CIP.

Monday night, a public hearing on the proposed CIP drew a crowd of four. At this time last year, the public hearing drew 30 speakers. And the year before that, the hearing required two nights to hear all of the testimony.

"I would like to believe that with the new way the CIP is written, communities see we're trying to meet their needs," said School Board member Ernestine Heastie (Providence), the board's facilities chair, just before adjourning the meeting a half hour after it started.

THE 2004-08 CIP includes a west Fairfax-area elementary school, slated to open in FY '07, and a new Coppermine Road-area elementary school, located in the western end of the county, with a projected opening date of FY '10. In addition, the program includes a new adult alternative education center and expands the number of middle and high school renovations to 15, including the continuing renovations at Lee, Madison, Stuart, McLean and Annandale high schools. Renovations also will start at Woodson High School in Fairfax, with the bulk of the expenditures slated for FY '07-08 and the replacement of Glasgow Middle in the Alexandria area, again with the bulk of the work slated for the FY '07-08 time frame.

In all, over the next five years the CIP calls for three new schools, in addition to the four elementary school slated to open this September, permanent additions at three schools and the installation of modular classrooms at 26 schools throughout the county, all of which is currently unfunded. So far, renovations at 10 elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools have been funded through bonds. It also identifies $69.8 million in unfunded infrastructure expenditures such as technology upgrades, roof replacements and required Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations.

In the 2003-04 school year, staff is projecting a shortage of 383 elementary-school classrooms, 2,050 students spaces at the middle-school level and a shortage of 725 students spaces at the high-school level. Enrollment is projected to increase by almost 15,000 students by 2009, with special education projections expected to increase from 10,936 in 2002 to 13,922 in 2007.

"IN GENERAL, I think the CIP speaks to most of the issues that are going on, namely growth," said Brad Center, facilities chairman for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "Sometimes we get a group that is mobilized [over issues at their school], but we just haven't seen that this year. I haven't gotten that many calls."

In past years, a bulk of the speakers at CIP hearings were calling for Woodson renovations and the construction of a new south-county secondary school, which thanks to a public-private partnership is slated to open after the 2007-08 school year, both of which have been addressed this year.

But there could also be a growing apathy among parents. "I think there is some resignation by people because they know there is only so much we can do because we have the bond limit and have no other sources of revenue," Center said. "We've been telling people for three years now that we have $1 billion worth of needed capital improvements and no way to address them."

Center said the council has also been working with the school system's facilities department to create a sort-of "frequently asked questions" page for the Web site to help the community navigate and understand the CIP.

Of the four speakers Monday night, three spoke about the need to replace Glasgow Middle, which has had two so-called "sewer days," when the school was closed because sewage backed up into the kitchen.

"There simply is not another school in the county with these combined significant problems, yet the CIP shows we won't have our infrastructure troubles solved until the year 2013 depending on how one reads the CIP," said parent George Waters.

The fourth speaker, student Katie Jenkins, reminded the board she has been speaking at the CIP hearings since she was in kindergarten asking for the Woodson renovations, along with several community members.

"Tonight, I'm here all by myself to remind you, we are still waiting for our high school to be renovated," Katie said. "You still don't plan to start fixing Woodson until I'm in eighth grade and won't finish until I graduate in 2011."

The School Board is expected to vote on the proposed CIP Jan. 23, at its regularly scheduled business meeting, beginning at 7 p.m., at Luther Jackson Middle School, 3020 Gallows Road, Falls Church.