- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

Fairfax County officials say they will not approve a $160 million school administration headquarters until they are assured enough money exists to keep moving students from trailers into classrooms.

Chairman Gerald E. Connolly of the county Board of Supervisors said he was “tentative” about approving the plan next month and that the roughly 9,490 students still in trailers is “more students than in some school districts.”

The county has been trying for years to keep pace with its growing population.

School officials said this summer that about 10,000 of the county’s roughly 166,000 public school students were taking classes in trailers outside the main buildings.

A county schools spokeswoman said Wednesday that the system still has about 700 trailers but the number of students taking classes inside them has decreased to 9,493.

“That’s progress, but still a lot of kids,” Mr. Connolly said.

Fairfax County is the 12th-largest school system in the country and the largest in the metropolitan area.

School officials said Monday that consolidating 1,300 employees from 14 sites around the county would save $5 million over 30 years.

But when the School Board voted Tuesday in favor of approving the plan, school officials said they would only break even.

“Five million dollars disappeared in 24 hours,” said Mr. Connolly, a Democrat.

Paul Regnier, a spokesman for the school system, said the $5 million was the number in the business plan, but was also “close to breaking even.”

Mr. Connolly was exasperated.

“Now we have a third quote,” he said. “What is it? And how come it’s only 5 million dollars over 30 years? You could easily have cost overruns.”

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland, Mount Vernon Democrat, said his big issue also is whether the project will prolong students taking classes in the trailers.

He also was not impressed with a $5 million savings over 30 years.

“One would hope there would be savings in excess of that,” Mr. Hyland said.

The proposal is to move 642 employees from seven buildings to an existing building in the 8000 block of Gatehouse Road in Falls Church, then build a new building next door for 659 more employees from seven other locations.

The building will cost $40 million, the adjacent land will cost $6 million and the new building will cost $44 million. The entire project would cost roughly $160 million, according to school system documents.

Mr. Regnier said the project would have no effect on plans to build new schools and would make school operations more effective.

“We have people spread all over the county right now,” he said. “If the superintendent decides to have a meeting, we’ve got to wait an hour for everybody to get there. That doesn’t allow for efficient operation.”

The school system this year has a $1.8 billion operating budget.

Officials are replacing some of the trailers with additions and semi-permanent buildings that are attached by hallways to main buildings, which officials say is a more academic atmosphere than the trailers. To handle the burgeoning enrollment, a high school and four elementary schools also were added to the system this year.

This is not the first time school and county officials have wrangled over money issues.

However, new schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale has made efforts since taking over this year to improve the relationship with the supervisors.

Mr. Connolly said the board had no specific information about the project before this week, and remains without a detailed analysis of “how this works.”

“They had shared with us, in general, their intent,” he said. “That’s about as much as we knew. We didn’t know they had, in fact, decided on a site. We certainly didn’t know they expected us to [vote] on December 6.”

He also said the School Board has yet to ask that the issue be put on the Dec. 6 meeting agenda.

Mr. Regnier said the nine supervisors and county staffers were apprised of the entire process as it unfolded and hopes the board votes in favor of the proposal.

“If the information is convincing and compelling, there’s a chance,” Mr. Connolly said.

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