Building upon the initial update from the August 9, 2016 Joint Session, LINK Strategic Partners began an internal audit process with the City of Falls Church Council and School Board members to best understand key contexts and considerations for a process of any kind to move forward.
Themes from these stakeholder audits – primarily information, structure, and timing – were presented in a joint session on October 3, 2016. The process needed clear, comprehensive, and data-supported information; structure for decision-making to move the process forward; and consideration of timing for long-term planning, development, and key milestones.
These themes led to the development of process concepts that structured and ordered the phases of decision making. After determining structure, the process splits fact-finding into School Board questions and City Council questions. After the factual foundation is established, the process moves into goal setting and additional studies, Requests for Proposals (RFPs), or program considerations needed to move the process to implementation.
On November 1, 2016 in joint session, the preliminary roadmap was agreed upon and a working group put in place to assist staff in data aggregation and dissemination. The group consists of two City Council members (Letty Hardi and Marybeth Connelly); two School Board members (John Lawrence and Erin Gill); and staff members from the city and school system. Meetings of the working group have been posted, public meetings.
The factual foundation began on November 21, 2016 with a presentation of Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) data. The intended capacity of George Mason High School (GMHS) was 780 students, but capacity was expanded by converting lab and conference space to classrooms to accommodate a current capacity of 876 students. Capacity can refer to both physical infrastructures that cannot expand (like gymnasium, auditorium, bathrooms, hallways, etc.) as well as student capacity, a more flexible number based on classrooms, planning blocks, and educational programming. This second definition explains how a capacity of 1,200 students could "flex" to a capacity of 1,500 by adjusting teacher planning blocks and changing the educational program so teachers share rooms rather than keeping their own.
Current enrollment at GMHS is 817 students; this number was reported on September 30, 2016 and typically fluctuates over the course of the school year. This fluctuation is usually a small percentage of the total population (by less than 1%). Enrollment of 817 includes out-placed students, of which there are currently 26 total across all grade levels.
Enrollment projections include historic overviews since 2006 and forecasts out to School Year 2031-2032. Prior to 2011, projection models were done internally by FCCPS staff, Hunter Kimble; since 2011, data and population experts Weldon Cooper have done the projections. Growth numbers have averaged 3.7% of the last 10 years and 4.29% over the last 5 years. GMHS enrollment is expected to exceed 1,200 students around the year 2028, and exceed 1,350 by the year 2032.
In addition to student numbers, the FCCPS fact-finding evaluated current facility conditions as well. Based on Capital Improvements Program (CIP) numbers with cost breakdowns for new equipment, as well as a memo for context from the FCCPS Director of Facilities, the current status of GMHS is noted to be outdated and unreliable, with a majority of its critical equipment outlasting the national recommended standards and anticipated replacement dates.
The City Council fact-finding was presented on December 5, 2016 to the joint session regarding financial possibilities and affordability for a new project. Under current financial policies, the City's debt capacity is approximately $70 million for all projects, or about $40 million for the GMHS project. Using alternative modeling scenarios and policies, the city could afford larger projects by using capital reserves to pay down the debt service, potentially receiving money from property transfer (lease or sale) and economic development, and assuming a longer (30 year) debt payout. In addition to financial models, City staff compared these debt projections against neighboring jurisdictions for comparison, as well as providing explanations of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Community Development Authority (CDA).
Options Development and Refinement
One exercise of the School Board fact-finding was to produce distinct tiers describing to what extent FCCPS could address capacity and facility-condition needs across a spectrum of funding options. The Working Group proceeded with due diligence to evaluate a spectrum of Discussion Options based on round, square-foot numbers and cost estimates from Arcardis, along with comparisons to similar projects like George Marshall High School, nearby in Fairfax County. On January 3, 2017, the Working Group presented to the joint session a series of initial discussion options.
Renovate part of the existing building and add capacity with New Construction
New Construction for a brand new facility altogether
Each tier produced a number of baseline options based on the initial fact-finding exercises, and many options had sub-options to capture the extent of low, middle, and high levels of renovation. Considerations and trade-offs during the option development discussions revolved around:
The needs of the educational program (including MEHMS capacity, long-term GMHS capacity, central office uses, practice fields, and 21st century education trends)
Avenues to make land available for potential economic development
Overall project timeline:
Phasing to spread out project debt
Minimizing construction and project impact on students/education
This document highlights the options which grew out of additional questions and refinements, forming many similar-but-nuanced "what if" scenarios with slightly different tweaks. As a spectrum, these discussion options were modeled on similar inputs and best used comparatively to assess pathways to a facility solution; additional feasibility studies would be required to more accurately understand specific pricing for each one.
The following options were developed based on the needs and program identified in the last Public-Private Educational Facilities Infrastructure Act (PPEA) process, including an addition to Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and space for central office use. Numbers and estimates will shift as more clarity and refinement is provided for the school programming in the "Goals" phase of this roadmap.
Option 1: Defer Construction
The goal of the first option was to assess the minimum cost possible by fixing only urgent needs and accommodating future capacity needs with trailers. The estimated budget was $19.8 million, plus escalation costs for trailers beginning around 2020. In discussion, this option fails to address long-term capacity needs in a sustainable or permanent way; it offers no potential for economic development; and it leaves critical construction or renovation issues to be decided further down the line.
Option 2: Phased Construction
Discussions between brand-new facilities and renovation led to questions about phasing options that would break new construction into many parts. Phased options have the advantage of spreading out the debt burden over a longer period of time (12-18 years), but this increases the overall project cost and increases the impact on students in the educational program. Option 2 originally examined a three-phased approach, but discussion and questions from the Joint Session asked for an equitable overview of "apples to apples" options – meaning that three phases did not result in a fully brand-new school; it retained a portion of the original footprint. A fourth phase was added to ensure the cost of Option 2 reflected a fully brand new facility comparable to Option 5; the cost was $166 million over 18 years (finishing in 2034).
This Option was a slight twist on the original, asking, "What if we did the addition to MEHMS first?" Doing so would have the lowest possible cost for a first phase (approximately $16 million) and provide swing space for GMHS. As additional debt comes off the City books in 2025-26, there would be increased debt capacity for larger phases to move forward. The total cost of this option was slightly more expensive in the end because of escalation on the larger project costs ($169 million total) and this cost – in addition to the impact on students over such a long period of time – made this a non-viable option.
The high cost of phasing and long-term impact on students led to questions of how we could shorten the phasing by frontloading a larger portion of the project immediately. Option 2B featured a larger initial phase ($64 million) but kept the 18 year project timeline. The resulting overall cost was reduced ($161 million total) but was still more expensive and had too long of an impact time on students.
Continued refinement of the phasing discussion resulted in Option 2C, which kept the idea of a large initial phase, but shortened the project timeline by combining later phases. The resulting option would construct a new high school facility in two total phases, completing the first in 2021 ($64 million) and the second in 2028 ($83 million).
Option 2C was presented at the Community Meeting on February 4, 2017 at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School. Spreading the debt burden over time was balanced against the significantly higher project cost (compared to Option 5), the programming and construction logistics of phasing, the impact on students, and the uncertainty in the cost of borrowing money in the future.
Option 3: Renovation and Addition
Between deferring and building new, many stakeholders asked to consider the cost of renovating the existing GMHS footprint and addressing future capacity needs with an addition of 103,898 square feet. The appeal of renovating the building, in theory, would save considerable money compared to constructing a brand new school, and stakeholders asked to see a variety of renovation levels to compare the bare minimum renovation and a full, extensive gut-renovation. Option 3, the minimal renovation, was estimated at $65 million and would be completed in 2022. The construction of an addition first would allow for swing-space while renovation proceeded in four phases through 2021-2022. Features of the renovation estimate included replacing the HVAC (equipment only, not ductwork), replacing the roof and fire alarm system, redoing new ceiling tile, paint, and flooring, and expanding the cafeteria and kitchen. Other fixtures like bathrooms, gymnasium, auditorium, and media center would remain as they are in this minimal renovation. Because the existing GMHS footprint is kept, Option 3 does not provide any potential for economic development. Furthermore, keeping the existing footprint reduces the overall life expectancy of the final project, meaning further resources and discussion would be needed within the next 20-25 years.
This is the most extensive renovation option, which would involve gutting the existing footprint and renovating fully with new walls, HVAC system, roofing, electrical and lights, fire alarm, plumbing, windows, casework, IT, ceiling tiles, paint, flooring, bathrooms, gymnasium, cafeteria, kitchen, media center, and a renovated auditorium. Option 3B was deemed less favorable because these renovations, plus the addition, cost nearly as much as a new facility ($114 million), but without any potential for economic development to offset the cost.
Between minimal and gut renovation levels, a middle ground was developed in Option 3A to ensure the full spectrum was assessed. The improvements outlined in 3B are minimized or done to a lesser extent in this option, and this option keeps the gymnasium, auditorium, and media center unchanged. At an approximate cost of $78 million, Option 3A was determined to be a more expensive but undesirable middle-ground.
Option 3 was presented at the Community Meeting on February 4, 2017 at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School for community input. Stakeholders who did not wish to see any land sold or developed viewed this as a more favorable option than those with development potential.
Option 4: Half-Demolition and Renovation
Part of the discussion to accomplish school goals in phases resulted in discussion Option 4, one which blends construction with various levels of renovation and includes partial demolition of the existing footprint. Compared to standard renovation (Option 3), this Option 4’s partial demolition would allow at least a portion of the existing footprint to be available for potential economic development if desired. Rather than renovating 200,000 square feet and building 103,898 like Option 3, this option would build 203,989 and renovate 100,000 square feet, allowing 100,000 square feet to be demolished.
Like the breakdowns in renovation levels for Option 3, Option 4A was developed to provide a comprehensive level of renovation to the portion of the GMHS footprint that would be retained. At a cost of approximately $114 million, this option is not significantly cheaper than a fully new facility, and it limits the potential for future development if desired.
Option 5: New Construction
As a counter to the "defer construction" option, one of the options remaining from the last process discussion was to build a brand new facility immediately and all at-once. The original new construction option based on the current programming was estimated at $117 million. This option is more expensive initially, but would complete the project in 2021 and allow for the maximum potential economic development at that time. The life expectancy of a new facility is approximately 50 years.
One question proposed to spread the cost of the new facility was to build a slightly smaller school initially, with a planned addition for the future. This option would spend a majority up front (approximately $107 million) on new facility and infrastructure for 1200 students in 2021, with an addition of $13 million in 2026. This option was deemed less viable because it is slightly more expensive than Option 5A, and it impacts the students and educational programming longer.
Another “what if” question to evaluate Option 5 examined the cost of building the entire 1,500 students school all at-once, but only finishing enough internal space for 1,200. The remaining “shell” would be finished at a future date. The price would be slightly cheaper initially (approximately $113 million) but there would be a slight escalation in the cost to finish the shell in 2026 or later. Like Option 5A, this Option 5B would be slightly more expensive than Option 5, and it would extend the project duration unnecessarily.
Option 5 was presented at the Community Meeting on February 4, 2017 at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, and further exploration into the academic programming may reveal opportunities to reduce the overall project cost.
Following the fact-finding and options development, the City Council and School Board will continue along the process roadmap with goal-setting. Using the base of information gathered and community feedback from the Community Meeting on February 4, 2017, they will refine the goals and program and move forward with the site vision through small area planning, the issuance of an Request for Proposals (RFP) or design competition, and additional processes that will further clarify next steps forward for the City of Falls Church community, school system, and City alike.
Henry Zhang, Principal Planner, Community Planning and Economic Development Services