Tysons, VA

Thursday Morning Notes

Fairfax County Public Schools to Start Vaccinations on Jan. 16 — “All FCPS employees will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine as a part of the Virginia Department of Health 1b group of other essential workers. All FCPS staff who wish to access the vaccine will have the opportunity to receive their first dose in the next three weeks.” [FCPS]

Metro Announces Inauguration-Related Service Changes — Metro will close 13 stations starting Friday (Jan. 15) through Jan. 21. Trains will operate according to a Saturday schedule, bypassing the closed stations, and 26 bus routes will be detoured around the security perimeter that law enforcement authorities have put in place for the Inauguration on Jan. 20. [WMATA]

Airbnb Cancels Reservations in D.C. Area — “Today, in response to various local, state and federal officials asking people not to travel to Washington, D.C., we are announcing that Airbnb will cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C. metro area during the Inauguration week.  Additionally, we will prevent any new reservations in the Washington, D.C. area from being booked during that time by blocking such reservations.” [Airbnb]

Tysons-based Alarm.com Debuts No-Touch Video Doorbell — The video doorbell uses “video analytics to ring itself whenever it sees someone standing on your mat. That design eliminates the need for anyone to physically press a button, and the built-in camera and microphone let you talk with them through your phone without opening the door.” [CNET]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Fairfax County Public Schools is getting its first electric school bus today as part of a statewide initiative led by Dominion Energy.

The bus is expected to arrive at the Stonecroft Transportation Center in Chantilly. It is the first of eight vehicles that FCPS will receive from Dominion in an initial deployment of 50 buses throughout Virginia.

FCPS says it anticipates getting the remaining seven buses by the end of January.

Made by Thomas Built Buses, the new vehicles will join Fairfax County’s fleet of approximately 1,625 diesel-fueled school buses, one of the largest in the country.

“Electric school buses in FCPS will benefit not only the school division and its community, but the entire national capital area,” FCPS says. “…They will help reduce carbon emissions, serve as a resource for national emergency planning efforts, and provide stability and capacity to the grid with meeting increasing energy demands.”

While electric buses are more expensive to purchase than diesel ones, they are cheaper to maintain and operate. FCPS is covering the difference in the initial cost with a grant from Dominion Energy, which also funded the installation of electric charging infrastructure at the Stonecroft facility and is responsible for maintaining the equipment.

FCPS says training for bus drivers, maintenance technicians, and other staff will start once the first bus arrives. The vehicles will undergo testing before being assigned to routes in early to mid-April, though whether there will be any students for them to transport at that time remains to be seen.

The arrival of Fairfax County’s first electric bus is a welcome step forward for community members and public officials who have been advocating for a transition to electric vehicles, citing health and financial benefits as well as environmental ones.

One of the most prominent advocates for electric school buses has been the Fairfax County branch of the national climate advocacy group Mothers Out Front, which launched a campaign in 2019 calling on FCPS to commit to converting its entire fleet to electric power by 2024.

“We are so excited for Fairfax to get its electric school buses on the ground and running,” Mothers Out Front Fairfax co-leader Barbara Monacella said in a statement. “…Every electric school bus we add to our fleet reduces the air pollution from diesel that harms our kids’ health, and brings us closer to our goal of converting every bus in order to reduce emissions and fight climate change.”

The community advocacy group has teamed up again with Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) on legislation that would create a state fund for school districts to purchase electric buses, a move aimed at addressing concerns about the amount of control Dominion has over the current initiative.

Last year, lawmakers opted to pursue the utility company’s pilot program instead, but Monacella says Keam will reintroduce his bill when the Virginia General Assembly convenes for its 2021 session on Wednesday (Jan. 13).

“We applaud the buses Fairfax has added, and we hope to add more through the state grant fund in the future,” Monacella said. “With every electric bus we add, we move the needle for our kids’ health and their future in the face of climate change.”

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Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand is asking for a $3.1 billion budget for the 2022 fiscal year that focuses “on the most pressing needs” of the school system.

He presented the nearly level-services budget — “a modest request” with an approximately $400,000 increase — to the county school board last Thursday (Jan. 7).

The proposed budget requests a $42.7 million increase in transfer funds from the county government to pay for new preschool special education classes, retirement rate increases, and rising health care costs, which would patch over a gap created by drops in county and state revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As all of you know, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted FCPS, our students, families, and staff in ways we couldn’t have imagined,” Brabrand said during the meeting. “I have designed a budget to meet the educational and social-emotional needs of our children so they can continue to learn and grow despite the challenges of the past year.”

The proposed budget includes money for distance learning, including cybersecurity protection and Zoom, which will replace Blackboard for web-conferencing, he said.

The budget does not contain compensation increases for most employees, though there is $3 million to finish a three-year initiative to increase the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants.

In December, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a state budget for schools that features a one-time, 2% bonus for teachers and support staff, with the potential for the salary boost to become permanent. But Brabrand said Fairfax County is opting out because it cannot afford to participate.

The burden would be on Fairfax County to match state funds with $32 million in county-level funding, he said.

“We understand that [FCPS] kept everybody whole,” Fairfax Education Association President Kimberly Adams said. “But many staff see it as a slap in their face.”

In comparison, Prince William County offered compensation increases in its budget last year, and Loudoun County’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes money to cover compensations that were frozen last year, she said.

“If Loudoun and Prince William moved two steps ahead of Fairfax, we’re behind,” she said. “People are already irritated. This is a potential reason to leave.”

The lack of compensation particularly hurts Virginia teachers, who have the largest teacher wage penalty in the country at 32.7%, Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Tina Williams said.

“We’re disappointed that the FCPS proposed budget does not include a pay increase for school employees, especially after a year that is the hardest in their career,” she said in a statement. “We urge FCPS to demonstrate it values the hard work and dedication of its employees by providing wage and cost of living adjustments to help keep employees whole.”

The Fairfax County School Board will hold a work session to discuss the proposed budget tomorrow (Tuesday). A public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 26, though it could carry over to Jan. 27 if needed.

The school board will adopt its advertised budget on Feb. 18 and present it to the Board of Supervisors on April 13. A final approved budget is scheduled to be adopted on May 20.

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It took an unprecedented shift to distance learning for Shrevewood Elementary School to drop below capacity for the first time since 2012.

After nearly a decade of parent and community advocacy, however, a long-term solution for overcrowding at the Falls Church-based school is finally in sight.

The Fairfax County School Board voted this week to repurpose the Dunn Loring Administration Center as an elementary school using $36.8 million in school bond funds.

That money had previously been earmarked for a new school in the Fairfax/Oakton area to lessen overcrowding at Mosby Woods and Oakton elementary schools, which has since subsided.

Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch proposed the plan last year after meeting with parents in the communities affected by the crowding.

“We’ve been pushed to the next year for so long,” Shrevewood Elementary PTA President Kate Coho said. “If we could get the ball rolling, that would be great.”

In the past, parents focused on a new boundary process to offset a mini-baby boom in the neighborhoods around Shrevewood.

Coho remembers that a mother began drawing attention to the school’s overcrowding about four years ago. The school was put in line to get a boundary study the following year, but FCPS dropped that provision from its capital planning program until Frisch put it back in last January.

“Then COVID-19 happened, so we’ve obviously been kicked down the road again,” she said.

Coho and fellow parent Jeremy Hancock, whose daughter is in third grade at Shrevewood, both embrace the Dunn Loring plan.

“A school boundary change has always appeared like the most likely or easy thing, but it’s encouraging that we have a longer-term solution,” Hancock said.

Coho said administrators have found creative ways to mitigate the crowding, but the school experience still suffers.

Some kids eat and play early or late in the day to avoid maxing out the cafeteria and the playgrounds. Sixth graders learn in seven temporary classrooms, and some elective courses like art and music are located out there, too.

School-wide activities are “basically impossible,” Coho said.

The 12-acre campus has no space for an addition or more trailers, which are located in the middle of the playground and extend all the way to a hill on the back-end of the school, she said.

The school was last expanded in 1998, when the building was updated to meet current design standards.

“Shrevewood ES has had a slight capacity deficit of 102% beginning in [School Year] 2012-13 and a substantial capacity deficit of 116% beginning in SY 2017-18,” FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in an email.

Since 2012, the following work has been done:

  • 2013-14: Added temporary classrooms
  • 2015-16: Divided two classrooms into four classrooms
  • 2016-17: Added temporary classrooms
  • 2019-20: Assigned newly identified primary students to the enhanced autism program at Freedom Hill Elementary School instead of Shrevewood
  • 2019-20: Added additional parking

Moving special education programs would effectively free up a few classrooms, but it is “a tricky issue,” Coho said. “It is a difficult situation to put special-needs children in.”

Meanwhile, Hancock, who serves as president of the Falls Hill Civic Association, is also working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to address safety concerns on Shreve Road, which compounds the overcrowding issue.

Because the road’s big intersections and adjacent neighborhoods are designed for driving, there are no sidewalks or protections for pedestrians and cyclists using the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail.

Hancock argues that the chronic lack of parking — a symptom of overcrowding — could be mitigated by safe walking routes.

“It’s such a long term process,” he said.

Photo by Michelle Goldchain

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Work on a new roof and synthetic turf field for McLean High School will begin this summer after the Fairfax County School Board approved contracts of nearly $1 million combined for the two projects yesterday (Thursday).

A $386,480 contract to replace the school’s roof went to R.D. Bean, Inc., which was selected out of a pool of seven companies that submitted bids for the project on Dec. 18.

The field replacement will be done by Astro Turf, LLC, for $548,500. Four other contractors were in contention for the project, which received bids on Dec. 9.

“These critical improvements will help McLean High School continue offering world-class educational and athletic opportunities for our students as the school division and community work to address ongoing capacity needs,” Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch said.

FCPS says that the replacement of McLean High School’s existing turf field, which was installed in 2012, is part of an ongoing, division-wide program to maintain the quality and usability of school athletic fields.

The roof, which was built in 1997 with some additions constructed in 2001, will be replaced in one-month phases over the next four summers. This year’s work will encompass approximately 30,000 square feet of roofing.

McLean High School is currently undergoing construction for a 12-classroom modular building that is expected to be finished in the next couple of weeks, Dranesville District Representative Elaine Tholen told the school board on Tuesday (Jan. 5).

The modular will replace 12 trailers at McLean, which is about 300 students over capacity as of the 2019-2020 school year, according to the most recent Fairfax County Public Schools proposed Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

FCPS staff did not calculate program capacity utilization for the current school year in the proposed FY 2022-2026 CIP, because the majority of students have been learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with the modular, McLean High School will still have 22 temporary classrooms in trailers.

In the hopes of providing further relief from overcrowding, FCPS is conducting a boundary adjustment study that could potentially shift some future McLean students to Langley High School.

“I am happy to see this investment in infrastructure at McLean High School along with our modular classroom construction and several building modifications,” Tholen said. “These necessary enhancements will serve current and future students and staff as we continue efforts to alleviate overcrowding at the school.”

Photo via McLean High School PTSA

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The Fairfax County School Board will hold a virtual public hearing at 7 p.m. today (Thursday) on the proposed fiscal year 2022-2026 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Released on Dec. 17, the proposed CIP – which sets short-term priorities for school renovations, capacity enhancements, and other infrastructure projects – remains largely the same as last year’s plan, as the uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic made FCPS officials wary of making any significant new commitments.

“It is a daunting time,” FCPS Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg said. “…We don’t want to do anything that’ll impact our facilities or our staffing, especially with the inoculation coming, the vaccines, and then, next year, [we want to] put ourselves in a position to get back to whatever the new normal might be.”

Because students have mostly been learning virtually, FCPS staff were unable to include data on the capacity utilization of individual facilities for this school year in the CIP. Fluctuating attendance also precluded staff from making five-year projections for future student enrollment.

According to a presentation that Platenberg gave to the school board on Tuesday (Jan. 5), FCPS shed 8,338 students between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. The losses predominately came at the elementary school level, which saw a drop in membership of 7,729 students.

Because FCPS is not adding any new projects with the proposed CIP, the school system will be able to focus on the many needs that it has already identified, Platenberg says.

For the Tysons area, the CIP again proposes building an elementary school to relieve crowding around the Silver Line Metro. About $2 million from a school bond approved by voters in 2019 have been allocated to the project for planning, but the $37.5 million that FCPS estimates will be needed for construction is not yet funded. Read More

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Fairfax County Public Schools is moving forward with plans to expand James Madison High School.

An addition project for the Vienna-based school will be introduced as new business at the Fairfax County School Board’s meeting on Thursday, setting the stage for Fairfax County Public Schools to solicit bids for a construction contractor.

Intended to accommodate increasing enrollment, the addition will give Madison approximately 32,000 square feet of new space by augmenting the front of the school with a third floor and expanding the second floor at the back of the school.

On top of enhancing the building’s capacity, the addition will provide expanded cafeteria space and new library and technology learning spaces, according to Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren.

The project carries an estimated cost of $23.5 million that covers design, permitting, and construction. The funds come from school bonds that Fairfax County voters approved in 2017 and 2019.

“Fairfax County taxpayers want students to have modern and meaningful learning experiences,” Meren said. “…It is only through voter-approved bonds that FCPS can fund renovations and construction. I’m grateful to Fairfax County voters for investing in our public schools.”

Last renovated in 2005, Madison is designed to accommodate 2,115 students, according to the proposed FY 2022-2026 Capital Improvement Program. FCPS anticipates that the addition will expand its capacity to 2,500 students.

The school reached capacity during the 2015-2016 school year, and it now has 2,217 students.

Enrollment this year dipped slightly from the 2,272 students who attended during the 2019-2020 school year, when the school was at 108% capacity. Capacity utilization numbers for the 2020-2021 school year are unavailable since the COVID-19 pandemic has largely kept students at home.

FCPS is scheduled to open a bid for construction on the addition project on Jan. 21, and the school board will vote on the award when it meets on Feb. 4.

According to FCPS Facilities Planning Coordinator Jessica Gillis, the winning contractor will arrive on-site to start work this spring, and construction is expected to be complete by the end of 2022.

Photo via Google Maps

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Fairfax County Public Schools students will not start returning to in-person learning next week as planned.

After getting an update on local COVID-19 trends last night (Tuesday), the Fairfax County School Board gave its support to FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand’s suggestion that the school system delay bringing students back into buildings until February at the earliest.

“We can take some of the feedback today…and take a pause right now and come back with some more information about vaccinations and a revised timeline with input from our principals and our teachers,” Brabrand said.

All students are currently learning virtually after a two-week winter break, but FCPS had hoped to restart in-person instruction for some students in special education and career and technical programs on Jan. 12.

Other students were scheduled to follow in phases over the next month, with the last group of middle and high school students starting hybrid in-person learning on Feb. 9.

However, with COVID-19 surging in Fairfax County and vaccines not yet rolling out to school employees, school board members, principals, and teachers’ unions expressed concern that it would be unsafe for both students and workers to restart in-person learning.

Virginia Department of Health data shows that Fairfax County has exceeded multiple thresholds established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for determining the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

As of today, the county is averaging 520.6 new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days, and the 14-day testing positivity rate is at 13%. The number of new cases per 100,000 people in the past week is up 26.2% compared with the previous week.

In addition, FCPS has recorded 649 COVID-19 cases among employees, students, and visitors since Sept. 8. Brabrand told the school board that there have been 20 outbreaks in school facilities, even though only 11,810 students and staff have participated in in-person instruction this school year.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which represents FCPS educators and staff, has pointed to those case rates as evidence that the school system has not adequately implemented mitigation measures like social distancing and face masks that would reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“We are deeply concerned that FCPS is rushing to reopen schools while COVID-19 cases are surging like never before,” FCFT President Tina Williams said in a statement issued prior to last night’s school board meeting. “We all want nothing more than for students and staff to return to school for face-to-face instruction, but right now, it just is not safe.”

Brabrand told the school board that he will bring a presentation reevaluating how FCPS should proceed with its Return to School plan on Feb. 2.

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Wednesday Morning Notes

Vienna Police Respond to Republican Senator’s Report of Vandalism and Threats by Protestors — “Officers were called to [Missouri Sen. Josh] Hawley’s home in Vienna, a Washington suburb, around 7:45 p.m. after someone reported that there were “people protesting in front of the house.” Officers who responded to the scene found that the “people were peaceful,” said Master Police Officer Juan Vazquez, a spokesman for the Town of Vienna Police Department.” [Associated Press/WTOP]

VDOT Schedules Meeting on American Legion Bridge Transit Recommendations — “After draft transit recommendations for the Interstate 495 American Legion Bridge Transit and Transportation Demand Management study were shared, a virtual public meeting will be held on Jan. 12.” [Patch]

Fauci to Hold Virginia Town Hall on COVID-19 Vaccine — “Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will speak about the COVID-19 vaccine during a virtual Friday afternoon event co-sponsored by Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, the state health department and faith leaders from around the state.” [Inside NoVA]

Local Students Named to Statewide Honor Choir — “Twenty-four Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) students from 13 high schools have been named to the 2020 Virginia Music Educators Association (VMEA) Senior Honors Choir. This group will present a virtual concert in March at a time and date to be announced.” [FCPS]

Staff Photo by Jay Westcott

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On Tuesday morning, the Fairfax County School Board approved a proposal to convert the Dunn Loring Administration Center into an elementary school.

All 10 board members who were present supported the measure. Two members were absent at the time of the vote.

The move is intended to relieve overcrowding at Shrevewood Elementary School in Falls Church and avoid the need to make multiple boundary adjustments.

“We want to limit the disruption to the community, and potentially facing several adjustments is not a path we want to go down,” Providence District Representative Karl Frisch told the board.

Fairfax County Public Schools staff support the plan but want to avoid setting a firm timeline to keep their focus on returning to school, he said. Once planning starts, a new school could be ready in five years.

“This is one of the first steps that needs to be done to deal with the development going on in that area,” Dranesville District Representative Elaine Tholen said.

Today, the Dunn Loring center houses some special education services and programs for parents, but it previously served as an elementary school from 1939 to 1978.

Converting it back will cost $36.8 million in school bond funds. The school board will be using funds that were earmarked for a new school in the Fairfax/Oakton area, which was intended to lessen overcrowding at Mosby Woods and Oakton elementary schools.

The student populations at those schools have since dropped below capacity, Frisch said. Meanwhile, Shrevewood is “bursting at the seams” and could reach 120% capacity by 2025.

The school was first identified as slightly overcrowded in 2012, and became substantially overcrowded in 2017, FCPS spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said. Since 2012, the school has taken steps to ease crowding, such as adding space, trailers and more parking, she said.

Repurposing the Dunn Loring center is a more viable long-term solution than redrawing boundaries, Shrevewood Elementary PTA president Kate Coho told Tysons Reporter.

“Dunn Loring provides the long-term solution to the problem that’s only going to get worse in this immediate area, as we see housing continuing to go up,” she said.

At-large school board member Abrar Omeish said Shrevewood’s over-capacity is not as stark as schools like Glen Forest Elementary School, which has “more kids in trailers than in the building” and a 75% poverty rate.

“When people say that we focus more on schools that have more than the ones that don’t, I can’t refute that,” she said.

Hunter Mill Representative Melanie Meren said no solution will serve everyone, but this repurposing option is available now.

“I thought this would be a more straightforward conversation,” she said.

The Fairfax County School Board currently does not have any official policies dictating a public process for reallocating bond funds to different projects than the ones they were intended to support when approved by voters.

Frisch held two community meetings in December on the Dunn Loring repurposing proposal, one for the Shrevewood community and one for the Mosby Woods/Oakton area. However, the school board’s guidebook does not require those meetings or even a forum discussion for proposals to change how bond funds are allocated.

As part of the approval, the school board also directed its governance committee, which is chaired by Frisch, to look at developing a mechanism for a public process to ensure more clarity and transparency for future projects such as this one.

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