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Friday, December 6, 2013

School board approves resolution to acquire office building

The Fairfax County School Board approved by a 9-3 vote Dec. 5 a resolution to acquire “by condemnation or by other means” a vacant office building on Leesburg Pike to relieve severe overcrowding at Bailey’s Elementary School.

The school board is pursuing negotiations to purchase the property from the owners, 6245 Leesburg Pike Holdings LLC, but if that doesn’t work out, the resolution gives the school board the authority to acquire it through eminent domain. The plan calls for about 700 students in grades 3-5 to begin attending school in the new building in September 2014.

The Fairfax County Planning Commission endorsed the proposal earlier this week.

The resolution was proposed by Sandy Evans, who represents the Mason District on the school board. She said the building is needed because Bailey’s is bursting at the seams with 1,331 students and a projected enrollment of 1,593 by 2017-18. The school has 19 trailers and has taken the “unprecedented” step of taking over half the library for classrooms.

A consultant hired by the school board to search for land available for a new school came up empty, Evans said.

Three school board members voted against the resolution: Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield).

Storck had concerns that other options, including the community school concept, hadn’t been fully explored. If this was the last resort, he would have been willing to support eminent domain, he said, but that’s not the case. “We shouldn’t take property rights lightly.”

McLaughlin agreed that other options hadn’t been exhausted and that the school board and Board of Supervisors should come together to search for a long-term solution.

Schultz initially said she was torn, noting that overcrowding at Bailey’s needs to be resolved. But she expressed concerns that the use of eminent domain could set a precedent for the taking of land belonging to homeowners or businesses.

Among those who voted in favor of the building acquisition, Ryan McElveen (at large) said, “it’s the only workable solution.” Jane Strauss (Dranesville) said, if the school board doesn’t proceed with this project, “we’ll be depriving children of the kind of educational setting we are responsible for providing.”

For those who might think a five-story office building is not appropriate for schoolchildren, Evans said “people will be pleasantly surprised” at how it can be transformed into a “21st century learning environment.”

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Karen Garza said the school system will hold a workshop in January, open to the public, on the proposed design of the school.

Several people had expressed concerns that there won’t be an outdoor play area when the school opens. Evans said there will be space inside the building for physical education. Changes to the exterior of the property require a more extensive approval process. FCPS doesn’t want to delay the opening of the school, so an outdoor playground will be added later.

Evans assured people who live close to the building that their concerns about safety and traffic will be addressed. And she said there are no immediate plans to change the school boundaries; students who attend Sleepy Hollow Elementary won’t be shifted to the office building. She is planning a community meeting with residents to discuss these issues.

During the school board hearing, Richard Cheston, vice president of the Buffalo Hill Citizens Association, complained that residents weren’t given adequate notice about the project.

Cheston also questioned how FCPS will fund the office building purchase and renovation. Voters approved a school bond in November that included $20.8 million for the construction of a new school in the Bailey’s Crossroads area, and he said there is confusion over whether and when that will happen—or if the office building project is superseding those plans.

Suzie Phipps, first vice presidents of the Bailey’s PTA, urged the school board to approve the resolution.  She noted that previous efforts to find a creative solution for the overcrowding crisis—using Woodrow Wilson Library or the Willston Center—fell through because of opposition by Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross.  The office building is supported by Gross.

Phipps urged the school to pass the resolution because the office building can be available for the 2014 school year;  it has bathrooms, unlike trailers; it’s in the community; and it will have an urban design that can serve as a model for future schools.

Bailey’s PTA President Gwynnen Chervenic, speaking as a parent, not for the PTA, urged the school board to approve the office building project because there are no other viable alternatives. “Time and space have run out for Bailey’s Elementary School.”

“Every available space has been turned into classrooms, taking away multi-purpose rooms that would allow for more flexible activities. Every outdoor space that can accommodate a trailer has been used. Bailey’s cannot fit any more students,” Chervenic said.

This is what it means to attend a severely overcrowded school, she said: Some students eat lunch at 10:30 a.m. Most of the library books are in storage. Some students don’t go to the bathroom all day because it means putting on a coat, finding a buddy, and getting buzzed into the main building.

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