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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Falls Church HS parents express frustration over lack of renovation funds

A grungy sink in a science lab.
There was a huge amount of frustration vented at a Falls Church High School PTSA meeting May 1 over the lack of progress in getting funds for a badly needed renovation.

School board members Sandy Evans (Mason) and Patty Reed (Providence) listened patiently as parent after parent complained about how their children are stuck in outdated, unsafe science labs and subjected to overheated classrooms with inadequate wiring that precludes the use of smartboards and other technology.

Despite those problems, FCHS is near the bottom on Fairfax County Public Schools’ “renovation queue,” which means it won’t be renovated until 2024. The renovation queue criteria is being changed, though, but even the best-case scenario would only move up the renovation a couple of years.

At the most recent school board meeting, Evans tried to get the board to agree to put some extra money aside for FCHS if there is anything left over in the bond issue going on the November 2013 ballot. There wasn’t enough support for that, even though it wouldn’t affect any school projects already covered by the bond. So, instead, Evans moved to delay a school board vote on the bond issue. That passed by one vote.

Evans is considering a plan to ensure that special consideration be given to the “legacy schools,” the five high schools built in the 1960s. FCHS is the only one that either hasn’t had a major renovation or is not on the next bond.

Renovation queue changes

The reason FCHS was placed so far down the queue, despite its obvious needs, is because the criteria were biased against FCHS’s particular capacity and space issues and because the independent consultant using the criteria on a walk-through of the school didn’t do a good enough job identifying problem areas.

As a result, the school was ranked way lower than expected. One parent at the meeting called it a  “fraudulent analysis” and asked whether anything can be done now to rectify that. The answer appeared to be no; once the queue is done, no “queue jumping” is allowed, said Reed. Any remedies must go forward from this point on.

As the school board begins to discuss revising the renovation queue criteria, “our challenge is to change the criteria in a way that it will help Falls Church,” Evans said, “but that is not as easy as it seems.” She and  Reed plan meet with Jeffrey Platenberg, FCPS assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services, next week to see how this can be done.

The board will discuss the renovation queue at a May 13 school board work session. Members of the public won’t have an opportunity to speak, but Evans said it will be helpful if lots of FCHS parents show up. The new criteria will be adopted in June, and a walk-through of FCHS is expected to take place this summer.

During the walk-through, Evans said it’s crucial that school staff and parents, if allowed, monitor the assessment to make sure nothing is missed.

Lynne Petrazzuolo, one of the parents who founded UPROAR, a group formed to focus attention on the need for renovation, noted that the last walk-through was done incorrectly, which hurt FCPS in the rankings. For example, the consultant determined that the school has a band room plus a chorus room, when in fact both functions use the same room.

A negative message

Evans agreed with a parent’s contention that the schools inside the beltway are becoming increasingly segregated and that the deterioration of FCHS is causing more middle-class parents to pupil-place their children into other schools with fewer poor kids and minorities.

FCHS Principal Cathy Benner said the school lost 139 students last year. FCHS actually outperformed many other FCPS schools on a recent international assessment, but Benner noted that having inadequate facilities and a poorly maintained appearance sends a negative message.

Also, Benner said, the lack of space means FCPS can’t offer some instructional programs, such as TV production and a full complement of music classes, and that puts FCHS at a disadvantage against other schools.

The school board has been able to use some extra funds left over from a previous bond to fix up some of the school’s bathrooms and install new auditorium seating. FCHS also will be getting two new synthetic turf fields.

Several parents pressed for additional funds for emergency repairs, but there was some concern over the possibility that short-term fixes would hurt the school in the long run by making the need for a major renovation seem less urgent. There was also some discussion about whether FCPS should do simpler renovations on more schools, rather than wait for the money to have a major renovation.

Thanks in part to parents’ strong advocacy on the issue, the school board and administrators recognize the need to renovate FCHS, Evans said. The incoming superintendent, Karen Garza, had lunch at FCHS and toured the school on a recent visit to the county. According to Evans, “Falls Church is on everyone’s radar now.”


  1. At this meeting, parents discovered that the 2008 assessment for Falls Church was never signed off on. How can the school board continue to postpone a renovation for Falls Church when they are presented with such faulty data? Would this be "queue jumping" or a "queue correction?"

  2. Jeff Platenburg has agreed to meet with the school and UPROAR to review the 2008 assessment to determine the extent of the inaccuracies.

    1. Will that be a private meeting? Who gets to attend? Will anything be written down for public disclosure? Who will be accountable for action?

    2. Will any school board members be present?

    3. I would invite Penny Gross from the Mason District since she has stated publicly that " the facility evaluation that was done in 2008 was terribly flawed, and failed to demonstrate that any rigor was used to evaluate the school, especially when compared to the detailed analysis and comments on the evaluation sheets of other schools of similar age" Ms Gross met with Principal Benner and the PTSA leadership in early 2012 to discuss renovation needs and the approaches to fulfilling those needs. Ms Gross would be an absolute asset to those discussions with Mr Platenburg.

    4. The meeting will include the Principal, school board reps, and the PTSA/UPROAR.

      It is not to discuss whether the evaluation was flawed - that is an accepted fact. It is to discuss correction of the scores. The discussion will be reported at the next PTSA meeting - an open meeting and all are welcome.

      Also, if you post with your name, rather than as anonymous, we can be in contact with you.

    5. OK. I think we all agree its public knowledge about the flawed evaluation. This is a significant issue, and correcting the scores is fine. The looming question remains - what is to be done next ? Is correcting the scores just for the record? Is someone going to effect change?

      We are in contact - Thanks

  3. Queue Jumping is an irresponsible comment and goes with a negative connotation. The facts of the matter are that FCHS suffered a flawed (and I agree "fraudulent") assessment in 2008 and FCPS and the Cluster Reps have done absolutely nothing about it. Promises were made 15 months ago to "find a new strategy" to address this, and now we have to listen to we need to "write our problems down" - Hence we continue to go "round and round" with no one to embrace this error and to do something about it.

    FCHS now suffers the consequence.

    Shame on whoever is causing confusion with the words "queue jumping" Fix the assessment and put FCHS in the right position for renovations. That's all that is being asked.