Fairfax's $86.8 Million Question

Fairfax's $86.8 Million Question

City of Fairfax voters will decide on bond for school renovations.

William Foster wants City of Fairfax voters to think back to when Fairfax High School and Lanier Middle School were built and remember that it was 32 and 44 years ago.

"A lot of people look at Paul VI and remember that it was the old Fairfax High School. What they don't realize is that was 30 years ago," said Foster, chair of a committee that is supporting a bond issue to renovate the two schools.

Since their construction, Lanier Middle and Fairfax High have had normal wear and tear, and educational standards have changed so much that major renovations are called for. "We always laugh at PTA meetings that we can't have coffee and tea because we'll blow a fuse somewhere," said Toby Sorensen, president of the Fairfax High School PTA.

The PTAs of both schools support the bond.

The electrical system is just one of the projects. Also slated to change would be an increase in the size of the media center and classrooms. "They have classrooms that are too small by today's standards," Foster said.

Foster pointed out that other intangible factors can be added that would contribute to the students' education. Newer buildings and facilities would be more attractive to teachers. "Good facilities attract good teachers," Foster said.

The renovations, however, are too costly to finance through the city's budget, so voters will be asked to decide on selling bonds that will total $86.8 million. Of that, $32 million will be used for Lanier, $54 million for Fairfax and the remaining $800,000 will go toward issuance costs.

The $86 million is just the amount the City of Fairfax will get through the sale of the bonds. The amount it will cost to pay them back is a much higher number.

According to a report sent out to city voters, the cost of paying off the bonds will be at least $146 million. The exact number is difficult to determine since it depends on the interest rate when the bonds are sold, and the city's bond rating. Currently, the city has an AA+ rating according to Standard and Poor's and AA1 according to Moody's — in both cases, one below the top rating of AAA, said Dave Hodgkins, finance director for the City of Fairfax.

IF THE bond does not pass, city leaders warn, the end cost will be higher still. An estimated $20 million would need to be spent over the next five years to bring the buildings up to current standards, and after that, many of the renovations would still need to be done. "It's not $86 million or nothing, said Mayor Robert Lederer. "It's $20 million over five years and then still have to do it."

"If it doesn't pass, we're doing a Band-Aid," said Councilmember Patrice Winter. She and Lederer both explained that the city is currently retiring debt from other bonds, which will free up space in the budget for additional debt service. "We're at a place now where we can take it," Winter said.

Due to another change in educational standards and the projected inflation in construction costs, the bond needed to make the same repairs at the end of the five years would be even higher. "In five years, we would be at $136 million," Winter said.

Residents without school-age children could also be affected by the renovations through a change in property values. Better school systems, Foster said, make the houses more desirable.

While this may make residents grumble at tax time, they will reap the benefits when they are ready to sell. "Parents want good education," Foster said. "It's going to draw people that value education into these neighborhoods."