|From the left: Penny Gross, Mollie Loeffler, Sandy Evans, and a League of Women Voters representative.|
The need to reduce school overcrowding by building a school at the Willston Center was a huge issue for local residents during dozens of meetings about plans to revitalize Seven Corners over the past two years.
Gross told a large crowd packed into a meeting room at the Woodrow Wilson Library in Bailey’s Crossroads that a new East County Human Services Center, which previously had been slated for the Willston site, will be built at the southeast quadrant of the Columbia Pike/Route 7 intersection. She said the county’s Capital Improvement Program, which still lists an office building at the the Willston center, will be amended next year to identify the new location.
Gross said the Seven Corners plan approved by the BoS has language in it calling for the Willston Center to have a community school combined with a county facility that will include a day care center, other programs housed at Willston Multicultural Center, and health services for the community. “The language is there. Don’t let anybody tell you it isn’t there. I made sure it was in the plan,” she said.
Loeffler said she is happy that a community school is slated for the Willston Center, but it’s happening “because of the pressure we placed on the supervisor.” Residents and the school board repeatedly pushed Gross to consider a school for that site as part of the Seven Corners revitalization plan and submitted a petition with over 500 signatures, she said, and “the supervisor repeatedly stalemated us on the issue.”
Then, a year ago, the community learned that Gross had been quietly planning to put a $125 million East County office building on that site. “Imagine the anger of parents that our children were put in a retrofitted office building [Bailey’s Upper Elementary School] while she saved a five-acre plot of land for a building for office workers when we are facing the highest office vacancy rate we’ve seen in 23 years,” Loeffler said.
“I’m in favor of not building anything right now we can’t afford to build,” Loeffler said. “We have a 32 percent office vacancy rate in Bailey’s Crossroads. We should use vacant space in existing buildings.”
Loeffler also blasted Gross for ignoring proposals by the community to add classroom space during the renovation of the Wilson Library to relieve overcrowding at Bailey’s Elementary School next door. “Unfortunately, because the current supervisor did not take action at that time, we are now spending $350,000 a year to bus children” to Upper Bailey’s, when they could have walked to the library, she said.
Most parents and teachers are pleased with Bailey’s Upper, Evans asserted, and a playground will be put in next summer.
Taxes, spending, and the school budget deficit were also big issues at the forum. Gross, a Democrat who has served five terms on the board, said she has in the past raised property taxes and lowered them. “When we need additional revenue we have to look very, very carefully at our tax structure and what is the burden taxpayers can support,” she said.
Regarding the possibility of a tax on restaurant meals, Gross said she supports “building coalitions that would support a meals tax. It will not pass if there are no coalitions to support it. That has to be done first.” Noting that a meal tax failed miserably the last times it was on a ballot referendum, she said, “it will fail again without coalitions to support it.”
As an alternative, she called for the General Assembly to raise the hotel tax – it’s now 2 percent – and allow the revenue to be used for a broad range of uses. Now, the revenue can only be used for tourism.
Loeffler, who’s running as an independent, would be open to putting a meals tax on the ballot but doesn’t support raising property taxes, because, “the middle class is bearing a lot of the burden already.” She would look for other revenue services, including more state and federal funds.
Loeffler called for more oversight in the budget and eliminating duplicate services, such as combining facilities management for county buildings and schools. She opposes the use of Economic Development Authority bonds for new county building, as those bonds are supposed to be used to attract new businesses.
The school budget shortfall, an estimated $75 million, is due to enrollment growth – 22,000 new students in the last eight years – and increased costs mandated by the state for employee pensions and health benefits. Evans called for more funding from the state to help close the gap, but also said, “we need to be prepared to make very deep cuts.” Even so, raising teacher salaries is critical, she said, and hopes the school board won’t have to cut music and arts.
Both candidates were asked to address the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, released Oct. 20. The Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee will discuss the report Oct. 27.
When asked why the board waited 17 months before dealing with the police-involved shooting of John Geer, Gross said, the board put too much trust into the police. “We learned there were questions we needed to ask that we were not asking.”
“We learned there needs to be less of an us versus them and more transparency about how we handle these kinds of unfortunate situations,” she said.
The Geer situation was a tragedy and a lot of people are upset about how that was handled and the failure to inform the public, Loeffler said. “I want to make sure we have good rapport with the police and reach out to them, have more transparency, and build more trust with the police force.”
Gross disputed the claim of a resident who asked why Mason District has a deteriorating quality of life. The resident said Mason has more school trailers than any other district, more homicides and sex crimes, and more unenforced building code violations.
“We have a great quality of life here in a great county,” Gross said. There were only a couple of homicides in Mason last year and only 15 in the whole county. “That’s not a huge number and most of them were domestic in nature. We’ve got to do more to address domestic violence.”
To relieve school overcrowding, Gross suggested using two former school buildings – the Leis Center, which used to be Walnut Hill Elementary School, and the former Graham Road Elementary School.
“We should build community from the inside out,” Loeffler said. Her prescription for improving the quality of life in Mason includes re-engaging neighborhoods, helping neighborhood leaders restart civic associations, encouraging neighbors to talk to one another, reinvigorating Neighborhood Watch, and getting youths involved in that effort.
She would also step up code compliance and improve community engagement with the police by helping them reach out to other cultures and building trust, she said.
Loeffler also vowed to seek more investment in business districts. “Mason is being left behind when it comes to revitalization,” she said. “Other districts are getting new town centers and transportation improvements while Mason is neglected. And when something is proposed here, citizens don’t feel like they’re getting a voice.”
Gross noted that there is language in the Comprehensive Plan calling for town centers in Annandale, Seven Corners, and Bailey’s Crossroads, but it takes time for that vision to be realized.
Loeffler would like to see revitalization now with “more mom and pop stores to complement the great restaurants we have in Annandale.”
Loeffler said she is running for supervisor “so we can have responsive leadership, new ideas, new energy, and a fresh approach.”
Evans’ vision for the future includes individualized learning for every student, ensuring students are ready for the workforce as well as college, less standardized testing and more of a focus on analytical thinking and creative thinking.