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$246 Million for School Construction?

Nov. 8 bond referendum would pay for construction projects at 24 Fairfax County schools.

Freedom Hill Elementary School in Vienna, built in 1952, is in dire need of renovation.

In the 1970s, the Fairfax County school system decided to knock down most of the school's classroom walls so students would learn in an open area with peers of all ages. The experiment failed. The "open classroom" experiment, played out in many parts of the country, proved to be too noisy and distracting.

Ever since, the school of 505 students has operated with jury-rigged movable walls that separate most of its classes.

But because the make-shift walls were never in Freedom Hill's design plans, the school now lacks proper hallways. To go to their classes, many students have to cut through three other classrooms. Getting to the bathroom is another story altogether.

"We've managed over the years, but it's been difficult," said Anita Lynch, Freedom Hill's principal for the past three years. "We could really use some renovations."

On Nov. 8, Fairfax County voters will be asked to authorize nearly $13 million for Freedom Hill's renovation as part of a $246 million bond referendum that would fund 24 school construction projects in the county.

"We're hoping everyone votes for the school bond referendum because it's really needed at Freedom Hill and at other Fairfax County schools," Lynch said.

MUCH OF THE MONEY likely to be authorized by the 2005 school bond referendum will be dedicated to renovating existing schools. More than $177 million would be provided for renovations at nine schools immediately, as well as pre-construction planning for another eight elementary schools and two middle schools.

The biggest single renovation included in this year's referendum is a $63 million project at Edison High School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

The referendum will also secure $19 million for construction of a new elementary school near Herndon. Meanwhile, $4 million would go to planning a new elementary school in the Laurel Hill area and another in the Falls Church-Annandale area.

An additional $35 million would be allocated for technology upgrades, Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, security enhancements and other major maintenance projects.

Kevin Reynolds, a banking executive and chairman of Fairfax County Citizens for the 2005 School Bond Committee, said he hopes at least 80 percent of the county's voters support the bond on Nov. 8.

"The components of a great community are jobs and great schools," he said. "The better our schools are, the better our community will be."

NEXT MONTH'S school bond referendum is actually smaller than the county's recent school bonds in 1999, 2001 and 2003.

The three previous bonds — which were approved by 77 percent, 80 percent and 76 percent respectively — authorized a total of $965.8 million for school construction in Fairfax County.

Most of that money has either already been spent or is currently being spent, said Gary Chevalier, coordinator for the school system's office of facilities planning services.

"We have an excellent track record of delivering projects on time and on budget," Chevalier said.

Only once has the school system been forced to go back to the voters seeking additional cash after a project went over budget. The project, Hayfield Secondary School's renovation in the late 1990s, was approved.

The Board of Supervisors will only allow the school system to spend $130 million each year on school construction saying the spending cap helps maintain the county's AAA bond rating, ensuring low interest rates.

But because of inflation and the rising cost of construction materials, $130 million is buying much less than just five years ago, Chevalier said.

Though it has not yet been made public, the school system is working with the county for a possible increase in its spending cap. Under the deal, the school system would hand over a number of vacant school sites to be used as parks, affordable housing, recreation centers and more. In return, the School Board hopes the Board of Supervisors would increase the annual cap to allow more school construction.

"The spending cap is whittling down our ability to fund these much-needed school construction projects," Chevalier said.

Consequently, this year's school bond referendum seeks $18 million to plan out future school projects. By funding everything needed prior to construction — including design and preliminary engineering — the school system can have the construction projects ready to go once money is available in the future.

"The bottom line is that the public should feel they're getting a good bang for their buck," said School Board Chairman Phil Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence District).

NOT EVERYONE supports Fairfax County's biennial school bond referendum. A solid 20 percent of the county's voters — roughly 45,000 citizens — routinely oppose the measures.

Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, said he opposes funding projects via bonds because they needlessly escalate the price of school construction by as much as 40 percent. It would be far cheaper, he said, to pay for school projects up front, rather than borrowing.

"Fairfax County with bonds is like a teenager with a credit card," Purves said. "It's the bond writer's dream, but the taxpayer's nightmare."

Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman Paul Regnier said the county pays for projects by floating bonds because it simply does not have $246 million on hand for school construction, any more than most homebuyers have all the money they need to buy a house up front.

"If we could pay for this construction right now, out of money in the bank, it would cost us less," Regnier said. "But the point is, we don't have the money and we need to fund this construction now. This is the most effective and efficient way to pay for school construction."