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Monday, January 12, 2015

Community leaders push for school on Willston Center site

The Willston Center.
Local residents are stepping up their efforts to push the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to transfer the Willston Multicultural Center property in Seven Corners to Fairfax County Public Schools as a site for a new, badly needed elementary school.

The Mason District Council of Community Associations (MDC) has drafted a resolution and a petition urging the BoS to give back the Willston Center.

The issue has taken on increased urgency as residents have learned that Fairfax County is moving forward with plans to build a county office building on the Willston site.

The need for a new school in Mason District is expected to surface at a school board work session Jan. 12 on the FCPS Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

School board member Sandy Evans, who represents the Mason District, supports getting the Willston Center back. Superintendent Karen Garza made a formal request to do that last month. “We have been wanting that site back as a good, viable option for a school for a long time. We are once again reiterating having it back,” Evans says.

She is also interested in pursuing the idea of a “community school,” which would incorporate some social or health services that would serve Willston area residents as well as schoolchildren.

The Board of Supervisors, however, is not interested in giving the Willston property to FCPS and is instead proceeding with plans for the East County Office Building on that spot. Mason Supervisor Penny Gross has stated her opposition to using the Willston site for a school and instead prefers having a school on the Columbia Pike/Moncure Avenue site.

A mixed-use redevelopment proposal for that property includes land for a new school as part of a public/private partnership. The BoS is holding a public hearing on the proposal Jan. 13.

While Evans prefers the Willston site – it’s larger and there’s space for an athletic field – she believes both sites should be pursued. The Columbia Pike site would provide relief for Glen Forest Elementary School, which is severely overcrowded, and would also provide relief for Parklawn and Belvedere. “We need to do more engagement with parents,” she says.

“We clearly need more seats in Mason district. That’s the bottom line,” Evans said. “The more options we have, the better.”

The MDC resolution opposes the construction of the East County Office Building on the Willston site and urges Gross “to take immediate and necessary steps to ensure that the Board of Supervisors return the former Willston School site to the Fairfax County School Board.” The Willston Center had been a school until 1983, and FCPS transferred it to the county in 1985.

The Seven Corners/Bailey’s Crossroads area desperately needs a new school because almost all schools in the Mason District are at or over capacity, many more will exceed capacity within the next five years, and there isn’t any land available in the area for a new school, the resolution states. Also, it says, new residential development proposed for the area would add at least 5,000 new housing units in Seven Corners and at least 9,000 in Bailey’s Crossroads.

According to the resolution, a school would be a much better use for that property than the East County Office Building, which would cost at least $125 million. The county is facing a $179 million budget deficit, while the county has a 17 percent office vacancy rate, it says, so it would make more sense to house the county offices in leased space.

In a statement that got a lot of applause at the FCPS public hearing on the CIP last week, MDC President Mollie Loeffler suggested putting county office workers in trailers, rather than schoolchildren.

Noting that FCPS transformed an office building into a second campus for Bailey’s Elementary School, Loeffler said on behalf of the MDC: “If we can retrofit an office building for an elementary school for our children, we can certainly adapt existing vacant office space for the use of a human services office. We must put the children first.”

MDC also recommends increasing the proffer amount developers pay to offset the impact of new housing development on school capacity and even higher proffers for building new housing in areas where the schools are already over capacity.

FCPS Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Platenburg  recently proposed raising the proffer from $10,825 to $11,749 for each expected school-age child. According to Loeffler, the actual cost per student is over $22,000.

Additionally, MDC recommends revising the method for calculating how many new students would be generated by new housing construction – and that a different formula should be used in areas like Mason District that have a lot of multifamily housing development. Currently, the county requires a single formula be used across the whole county.

Evans told the Annandale Blog she plans to bring up a proposal to change the formula at the board’s work session on the CIP.

“They’re telling us the yields in Mason are the same as elsewhere,” Evans says. “My gut is telling me it’s going to be higher inside the beltway. We need to have a more nuanced formula that takes housing affordability into account.”

The current formula has different numbers for the expected number of elementary, middle, and high school students in different types of housing. For example, the current capacity yield is .325 students per unit in a low-rise multifamily complex, .530 for a single family detached house, and .100 for a unit in a high-rise.


  1. Does MDC President Mollie Loeffler intend to run for the position of Mason District's Supervisor against Penny Gross this year?

    Ms. Loeffler is a well-respected community leader who holds strong views that are not the same as Supervisor Gross's views.

    As reflected by many commenters on this site the residents of Mason District are looking for someone to mount a strong challenge to Penny Gross. If Ms. Loeffler is not the right person to challenge Supervisor Gross, who is?

    1. YES YES !! Time for Penny to RETIRE.

  2. What an excellent opportunity! Over time there have been several issues commented against the current leadership. This January 13 public hearing (that's tomorrow!) is the perfect platform for Mason residents' show of strength, to stand up for the school.

    It's way more effective and productive than commenting on this blog, don't we all agree?

  3. Building Penny’s Palace at the Willston School site is not the answer.1

    Thillman to Gross:

    “I finally told the group that as a planner who was engaged in developing a redevelopment plan that would transform the area including taking people with very little means and living in substandard housing to setting up the circumstances for them to live in new upgraded housing and wonderful neighborhoods, I couldn't allow the tail to wag the dog--in other words allow the school debate to determine and or derail the needed land use changes. How can we allow poor living conditions and deteriorating neighborhoods to continue to decline because we are concerned with the school situation.”

    Gross to Thillmann:

    “The schools issue seems to be a no win. We already built Mason Crest, we’re
    doing the Upper Bailey’s Elementary, we have another school site in the works
    that’s three in the last 6 years – and the naysayers are still not happy. I think it may be not a question of the number of schools or the number of students, but a socio-economic ethnic population they don’t like.
    1. Select excepts from a email exchange of June 4, 2014 between Seven Corners Task Force Co-Chairman John Thillman and Supervisor Gross. The full text of the FOIA produced email exchange can be accessed by going to November 9, 2014 posting under the heading “Supervisor Gross E-Mails”, file name “RE” at

    1. Supervisor Gross has some nerve to pull a straw-man race card like that.

    2. Wow. Naysayers?

      We are parents of children in severely overcrowded schools. We need more schools and we need our BOS to include us in long-term planning.

      Had we known that Penny would use the former site for county offices (Leesburg Pike) for an elementary school we would have mobilized to support Willston School and Woodrow Wilson Library in much greater numbers. We could never have imagined that our BOS rep would reject Woodrow Wilson and Willston School to locate an elementary school (Bailey's Upper) on 3 acres when the county and state guidelines stipulate that elementary schools should be on 10+ acres. Who could have imagined the BOS would do such a thing?

      We are in shock. But we are mobilizing to protect ALL of the kids from a continuation of severe overcrowding in our public schools. We want the best for all the kids, including every socio-economic and ethnic population, to quote Penny.


  4. Darn. More double-speak.

    "While Evans prefers the Willston site – it’s larger and there’s space for an athletic field – she believes both sites should be pursued. The Columbia Pike site would provide relief for Glen Forest Elementary School, which is severely overcrowded, and would also provide relief for Parklawn and Belvedere. “We need to do more engagement with parents,” she says. "

    It seems that Mason District School Board Representative Sandy Evans also needs to do more engagement with the Superintendent of Schools, Karen Garza, as well as herself. Superintendent Garza sent a letter December 8, 2014 (exactly 5 weeks ago) to Mr. Edward Long, Jr., the Fairfax County Executive, reiterating both Superintendent Garza and Representative Evans' long- standing preference for Willston school site to be used as a Fairfax County public school (see quote, below) and did not mention the SE Quadrant location as suitable for an elementary school.

    Why, all of the sudden, has Rep. Evans decided to throw another site into the mix? Does Superintendent Garza know Rep. Evans is undermining her and FCPS's work to get Willston back?

    "We appreciated the opportunity to meet with you [county executive Edward L. Long, Jr.], Chairman Bulova, Supervisor Gross and other county staff about our enrollment and capacity challenges in the Mason district and our specific interest in the Willston site to be used as a school in the future.

    "As was noted in the meeting, Fairfax County Public Schools staff and Board members, including Sandy Evans, have articulated the need for Willston on many occasions over the past two to three years.

    Karen K. Garza, PhD
    Superintendent of Schools"

    So, Representative Evans, despite the fact that you have forgotten that your boss prefers the Willston site, we can humor you and compare the SE Quadrant location to the Willston School site:

    Choice 1) Supervisor Gross' choice, and hers alone (no one else endorses this site, not a single community association, not the School Board, NO ONE) a 2-acre site on a major artery, adjacent to the Route 7/Columbia Pike cloverleaf in the SE Quadrant, and

    Choice 2) the community and the FCPS choice, on a 5-acre site on local roads, bordered by residential development with an existing field and green space, and parking, at the Willston School site.

    The choice is clear. Willston School is our next new FCPS school. The children deserve this better, larger site.

    1. Mason District, this line is just nonsense, and it betrays your attempt to be a serious commenter: "So, Representative Evans, despite the fact that you have forgotten that your boss prefers the Willston site..."

      Dr. Garza is not Sandy Evans boss. Sandy Evans and her democratically elected colleagues on the School Board are Dr. Garza's boss.

      I shouldn't comment further, given your lack of understanding of governmental structure, but I'll also note that I think your first point in this comment is also specious. There is no particular reason why a letter from school officials to county officials regarding the Willston site would need to make any reference to the SE Quadrant.

      I need to comment again that you hardly represent this 17+ year resident of Mason District, despite your self-aggrandizing screen name.

  5. Willston is the only VIABLE school site solution for the overcrowding in 7 Corners/ Bailey’s Crossroads. The proposed Columbia Pike location is UNSAFE! This section of Columbia Pike is a busy commercial area and that particular section of the road is to be expanded to 6 lanes. It is a highly INAPPROPRIATE location for a school. Why would School Board member Evans even entertain it as an option? Hold out for Willston with its campus.
    And, why is Supervisor Gross insisting on building a $125M East Government Center at Willston when the children in Glen Forest are in such desperate need of a school? And, per a previous post, since when is improving homes in opposition to improving schools? We need good homes and good schools! Supervisor Gross has the audacity to imply that her constituents do not want better homes and schools by saying, “I think it may be not a question of the number of schools or the number of students, but a socio-economic ethnic population they don’t like.” Really? Really? It would appear that the reverse is true. Mason District constituents have been vocal in requesting optimal solutions to the community overcrowding of homes and schools. Instead, we get second class solutions and our children are treated as second class citizens while Supervisor Gross hogs the most suitable lands for her personal projects.
    The community wanted a partnership with Wilson Library to add Bailey’s Elementary classrooms and keep the children on a campus. Denied. The Supervisor wanted a solo library. The community wanted Willston School for Bailey’s overcrowding. Denied. Instead an office building is retrofitted into a subpar solution: no playground, no assembly hall, etc. And, now an East Government Center instead of a school. Once again the children get short shrift. They deserve better. Give the children the Willston campus; a safe, wholesome environment learning environment.

  6. Great, more chatter of building another school. But what is being done to address the issue(s) that is causing the over capacity at schools. Are folks in Lake Barcroft, Ravenwood, Sleep Hollow etc... having that many kids these days that local schools are being overrun. In the case of Bailey's they needed to be split into two. All anyone seems to want to do is just build another school instead of engaging the issues that are causing over capacity issues. It has been reported the birth rate among the Hispanic community is 3-4x that than non Hispanic. That is pretty significant when you multiply that. And with many on free and/or reduced lunch who pays for all this. With a budget shortfall predicted for FCPS of $180 M in 2017,someone better become creative quickly. I certainly don't want to see my taxes raised for any of this when elected officials do zero to address issues and/or provide better enforcement. There needs to be a change in leadership in many positions within the Mason District. A new vision. A new approach to addressing the problems.

  7. A portion of the June 11, 2013 Minutes of the Seven Corners Task Force:

    Mr. Thillmann asked Task Force members to provide feedback about the May bus tour of Seven Corners. Several members attested that it was very helpful and Supervisor Gross was an excellent guide. Evelyn Haught found the tour enormously helpful in clarifying many items that have been discussed in previous Task Force meetings. She was delighted to hear from the First Christian Church. She mentioned that the need for schools was frequently mentioned during task force meetings and she asked Supervisor Gross during the tour if the Task Force should be recommending space for a new school. She said Supervisor Gross replied that it was not the obligation of the Task Force to find a location for a new school. It is ultimately the responsibility of FCPS. John Thillmann and Blake Smith both reiterated that anyone can ask for things to be included in the Task Force recommendations but ultimately it is not our responsibility to include all of these ideas. Paul Brytus said that he thought it was important for the Task Force to address the future use of the Willston Center.

  8. My two cents. The site at which the county is proposing a new school on Columbia Pike is a viable, busy commercial district. Why put a school there, its the wrong place. Allot of traffic and its a bustling shopping district. That district should be encouraged to expand for mixed use: residential, commercial, retail and office occupancies. The Baileys Master Plan never called for a school, and the East County office building for Health and Human services was suppose to be on Columbia Pike. Why has that changed?????

    And why is Supervisor Gross pushing for the Willston site for this county office building. We have not heard the rational for this and I and am sure many other would like to understand this logic?

    Please tell us!

  9. And why is the public hearing scheduled at 3 when many parents will be unable to attend? Some will picking up their kids. Some will be spending more time picking up their Bailey's kids at two separate locations.

    1. Yes, two locations to pick up kids - thanks to the actions of Penny Gross - denying the Willson Library - site option and then the Willston former schools site... but hopefully the people will be fed up and sign the peition.

    2. I agree I thought the 3:00 time was very convienent for the BOS since most people who are concerned are picking up their kids at school. Perfect timing.

    3. Sign the petition here:

  10. Sign the Petition to get Willston back to FCPS!

  11. What would it cost to convert Willston back into a school? I suspect that the entire building would have to be gutted and then modernized. The appearance of the physical plant suggests that a renovation may simply not be cost effective.

    1. That may be true, but if your going to knock it down for a new HHS building then why not do that and build a new school there where it is needed. An HHS County Office Building is inappropriate in a residential area. It should be in a commercial or mixed use area such as 7 corners or baileys crossroads.

    2. I asked that question because I'm confident that too many local residents erroneously believe that revitalizing Willston merely involves moving some walls, stringing up wires and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. The physical plant is dilapidated and that includes the heating and ventilation grid. So, like it or not, it's a write off. I'm not against putting a school there, but that going to be a lot more expensive than Karen Garza is letting on.

      Moreover, that leaves the issue of where to relocate the social service offices that are presently occupying rented space. The East County plan includes a temporary shelter which mean that it just can't be plunked down anywhere. In other words, the future of the Willston site isn't as simple as some posters here claim.

      The only good thing coming from this controversy is that it highlights how ineffectual Penny Gross can be when she can't simply ride Sharon Bulova's coat tails. Mason clearly needs a supervisor along the lines of a Tom Davis. The County's finances are clearly out of control and its time for Penny to be replaced by someone who can help reign in the rampant spending.

    3. The Willston school is of the same vintage as the old Masonville school. I think you can safely assume it would be razed and replaced with new construction, just as was done to build Mason Crest.

  12. I have not heard one peep from someone being a proponent of the Willston Center not being returned to it neighborhood as its local school. I have not heard one proponent in favor of turning the Willston Center into an HHS County Office Building.

    To me this is troubling, because either those proponents don't exist or this strategy for the Willston Center is so off track that no one will dare touch it and agree with this site/building's change of use.

    Schools belong in a neighborhood where parents and children have a sense of belonging and a vested interest. Educating children is not just about the structure, its about place, neighborhood and community. Willston needs to be returned to its neighborhood.

    Education is not only fostered by good teachers, its fostered by a sense of place. I walked to school growing up, my school was my second home and we learned and learned well. We had outdoor space, playgrounds and an environment that supported a learning environment. These social experiments of an urban school as a concept is nothing more than double talk.

  13. Too many commenters on this blog live in a bubble. EVERYONE does not agree Williston Center needs to be returned to FCPS. If everyone did believe this, it would have happened before now (its been over 33 years since the School Board agreed the center was "surplus" and not needed by the FCPS).

    Instead, now that the Fairfax County Government is ready to move forward with a plan to redevelop this site as part of a larger plan to redevelop Seven Corners; the School Board, the FCPS, and their supporters are demanding to get the land back and in addition demanding the funding to building a new school within sight of the brand-new Upper Bailey's school (which received a glowing review on this blog).

    For all the criticism of Penny Gross, the fact is she has regularly stood for election and has been consistently re-elected by her constitutents.

    Sure, attack Penny and her record, but don't delude yourself and pretend simply because you think a certain way everyone supports your position.

    1. Deluded is the right word. One regular commenter thinks he or she IS "Mason District."

      I'm not convinced one way or the other...but the lack of logic of some of the arguments by the Willston proponents makes me wonder if I want to be in their company. If I felt strongly the other way, I'd probably not engage here--there doesn't seem to be any way to constructive dialogue with the certainty on view here.

    2. We are not living in a bubble. We are living in an autocracy. Supervisor Gross acts without listening to or talking with her constituency. Period.

      Why has she been re-elected? Perhaps because of her party affiliation, perhaps because many residents simply aren't engaged. And why are they not engaged? Because Supervisor Gross does not communicate with our homeowners associations, she does not consider residents' concerns. She puts out a newsletter and calls it "community engagement."

      The larger plan to redevelop 7Corners did not include Penny's HHS building at the Willston site. She had plans drawn up in as early as January 2013, right after she appointed her 7Corners Task Force. But she was not transparent with the Task Force or the many many community members and community association presidents and board members about her plans. Her new offices at Willston School were never discussed and are not mentioned once in the 7Corners Task Force meeting minutes as part of the greater vision for the 7Corners CBC.

      Why hide her plan? This isn't good planning and it isn't transparent.

      For what it's worth, the blog's review of the Upper Bailey's School included comments from the community about the unsuitability of the site. No one can contradict the fact that a brand new facility is nice -- sure it's nice. But, let me ask you this, would you want your child going to an elementary school that has 1) no gym, 2) no playground, 3) sits on a 6 lane major artery, and 4) your child has to file out onto adjacent private property (a parking lot) for fire drills because the site is too small for the children stay on property and be a safe distance from the building. The Planning Commission agreed that it is a bad site (check out the records from the December 2013 hearing); but for some reason, they approved it anyway.

      When FCPS turned Willston over to the BOS in the 1980s, the structure of our local government here in FFX county was different. The School Board did not have the authority they do today.

      The need for Willston to be used as a school has arisen out of our severely overcrowded schools. It has reached a boiling point, and our local government is not helping. I don't think anyone disagrees with this.

    3. I've mentioned previously that Penny Gross is nothing without her slavish devotion to Sharon Bulova. The latter remains popular, so Penny is perceived as such by many voters. However, after the street car fiasco, it appears that some residents are finally beginning to focus more on Penny and aren't as appreciative of her as they once were. Since there's going to be another major tax increase before the next election, I expect Penny's reputation to continue declining.

    4. "Mason District"--you're clearly able to follow these issues with far more attention than I can offer. But you undermine your credibility with your hyperbole. We are not living in an autocracy because YOU don't like the democratically elected representative. You have every right to disagree and even dislike Penny Gross--but she IS the legitimately elected Supervisor from your area.

  14. What is the logic behind locating a school in an office building (on 3 acres) and putting an office building in a former school site (on 5 acres)?

    1. Location, location, location. If the property's in the wrong spot, size doesn't matter.

  15. You're looking at this with total hindsight. The ECOB is large. After you factor in the shelter, parking, etc. it becomes clear that you can't just drop it anywhere. Moreover, Karen Garza hasn't exactly been forthcoming about the facts either. The FCPS will have to raze Willston. So, I'd like to see how the cost of that would compare to building from scratch on the Moncure site. And spare me the travail about the absence of playgrounds. The County is drowning in red ink and the absence of some grass likely won't scar the kids' psyches.

    1. Do you have kids? Do your kids go to the public schools currently? As a mother of 3 I can tell you that not having green space or outdoor time for my kid makes them cranky and unable to sit still. Kids need time to run and play and be a kid.

  16. With all this chatter I have still not heard the defense of putting the ECOB on the Willston site and the new school on Columbia Pike. If there is a good reason to do this can someone please state the rational.

  17. Can anyone please share updates from yesterday's public hearing?

  18. I think it might not be a bad idea to put a school at both locations. Maybe a small school can go on Columbia Pike that can be the school for walkers only. I know I have seen two full buses pick up kids at the apartments right near that location. Maybe if it is a small school they could add a green space and play area. This would help get that neighborhood more involved with the school. I do not see any need for making a ECOB.

    1. Here is a thought, let's just build a school for each grade and be done with it. Heaven forbid we peel the issue back and address what is causing the capacity problems at these schools. Are the folks in Lake Barcroft, Ravenwood, Sleepy Hollow having that many kids these days? Several years ago it was reported the birthrate among Hispanics was over 3x that than non Hispanic. Look at that on a grand scale and you will find one of your streams that flow into the school. , When you have multiple families cramming into one bedroom apartments having kids they can ill afford further straining the system it is time to take a hard look and address the problems head on instead of just calls for a new school. Aren't there ordinance laws? What about the owners of these buildings. What happens when these new schools fill up should we just build more schools? Recently it was reported the FCPS anticpates a 100million shortfall by 2017..Who is gonna pay for this and how will the level of education be maintained. As a taxpayer I certainly do not want to see my money going to any project until the problems that are causing the capacity issues are fully addressed.