Referendum: With Per Pupil Building Cost of $110,000 and No Focus on Classroom Needs or Renovation, GM Project Is Tangential to Our Children but Satiates the Council and School Board’s Need for Grandeur

May Be Most Expensive New High School in Virginia and Metro Area

State of Virginia Requires School Division to Report Total Per Pupil New School Cost

Scale of Economy Generating High Build Cost for Small Student Body Should Have Meant Warning Signals

But No Risk Analysis on Impact of Classroom Resources If Huge 30 Year Debt Is Approved

Arlington Public Schools Move to Determine Why the High Construction Costs

Langley High School Reconstructs, Remodels and Expands for $70 Million

By Sam Mabry

Mabry is a former Falls Church Vice Mayor

Cost of Construction or Renovation of Neighboring Schools

New Wakefield High School Arlington County

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the final total cost of Wakefield by 2011 was $89 Million and it contains 382,000 square feet.  It was built to an maximum operating capacity of 2,173 students and has now surpassed 2,000 students.  Adjusted for the increased cost of construction the 2016 value would be about $113 Million.

Using the state formula, the total cost of the school in 2016-2017 would be approximately $55,000 per student and $295 per square feet.  In 2011 the State reported based on the schools $88 Million cost, the cost per pupil was $41,000 and $176 per square foot.

New Charles J. Colgan Sr. High School Prince William County

With an aquatic center, the school has 340,000 square feet, and will have an enrollment of 2,000 in school year 2018-2019.  The cost of the school was $110 Million.  Accordingly, the cost per pupil is approximately $55,000 and the cost per square foot is $318.

Colgan High School for approximately the same cost as the proposed new GMHS offers more community and student amenities, including more size, a black box theater, and an aquatic center among several others.

Renovation of Langley High School Fairfax County

Almost 60 years old, Langley completed a $60 Million renovation about three years ago.  The school serves about 2,100 students. The renovation and 23,000 square foot addition is designed “to create a more effective learning environment for students.” The update also includes new electrics and plumbing as well as gathering places for social activities and homework.  The cost per pupil is approximately $28,000.

Langley High School Renovation









Additional Examples Are Available via Virginia State Board of Education Website

For other examples of high school construction costs throughout the Commonwealth, including Loudoun County, you may visit the Department of Education website:

Examining Estimated Cost of the New George Mason High School

Half Truth Examples Put Forward by City and School Board

Instead of breaking the cost of construction costs down in a straightforward and specific fashion as the state does to compare to other school construction, the City Council and School Board used gross numbers.  In this fashion, they were able to cloak the per pupil and square foot cost making accurate comparisons with other high schools impossible–unless citizens went to the state website.

How State of  Virginia Department of Education Calculates Construction Costs 

The Virginia Department of Education has a straight forward way for school divisions to report their annual cost of construction data.  As you can see on the attached state form, the Department requires that the school division report several variables including: the building cost, the site cost, the total cost, the total square feet, the square feet per pupil, total cost per square foot, and total cost per pupil.

The George Mason Numbers: Squeezing Financial Capacity Needed for the Classroom 

Accordingly, if the entire $120 Million is used for George Mason then the 211,000 square foot building will yield a total per pupil cost of of approximately $110,000-plus when completed in 2021-2021–if 1011 students enter the new building as estimated by current projections. That amount includes approximately $600 for each square foot of construction.

If the maximum of 1500 students are realized in 2032, the total cost per student will “drop” to $80,000.

Why Specific Cost Categories Are Necessary

The George Mason numbers, as astonishing as they are, cannot be studied in isolation.  The construction debt funding has an impact–and not a positive one–on funding that is available for the classroom for the next 30 years.

In short, is it prudent to commit so much money for such a long time in a city that shows no ability to significantly grow its financial base? Is it in the interest of our school children, given the ups and downs of the economy and its impact on city finances, to invest so much in buildings when funding for classroom needs can decrease as it historically has done?

Such questions and others demonstrate why the State wants us to have as much detail as possible–so that public officials have to be forthcoming–and then citizens can make an informed decision on how they desire their funds to be allocated.

In this regard, the Falls Church City Council and School Board have pulled up seriously short.

Arlington With Its Billion Dollar Budget Is Concerned

Even though a $120 Million school building represents a modest 10% of the County’s annual $1 Billion-plus operating budget, concern is evident.  Arlington Public School Board’s Internal Auditor plans to find out why schools in Arlington cost so much more to construct. John Mickevice outlined to the Board on October 19, what his effort will encompass.  Mickevice does not report to the Superintendent as is standard practice.  Hired by the School Board in 2014, he reports directly to board members through an audit committee of the Board. In 2014, Arlington residents were rebelling against gold-plated capital projects, including the $1 Million heated and computerized bus stops.

In Falls Church a $120 Million school represents on a one time basis 125% of our operating budget.  There are many ways to measure financial impact.  Since neither the Council nor School Board have undertaken a financial risk analysis, its a safe conclusion that they simply don’t want you to know before you vote for 30 years of debt.

The Referendum Will Be a 30 Year Choice

Notwithstanding the propaganda dispensed by some City Council Members and the Falls Church News Press, Falls Church cannot build its way out of a restricted ability to generate tax revenue due to its limited land mass as mandated by the State of Virginia.  Even the so called 10 acres of developable property is estimated to produce a very modest $3.1 Million–and not for 10+ years.  If it ever happens–it will represent a value of of less than $500 dollars for a home assessed at $600,000 and currently taxed at $8,000.

Let’s spend money to repair, replace and enlarge GMHS in the fashion that Fairfax County does with its buildings that become dated, saving the dollars for teachers and materials–not bragging rights about a new and shiny building.







2 Comments on "Referendum: With Per Pupil Building Cost of $110,000 and No Focus on Classroom Needs or Renovation, GM Project Is Tangential to Our Children but Satiates the Council and School Board’s Need for Grandeur"

  1. Sam,

    Great article. At this stage of the Referendum discussion most of the information that is going to be released has been. We have discussed financial consequences, due diligence and risk analysis shortcomings. Your article is the capstone to the final discussion point: that is the clear demonstration that the new GMHS will be the most expensive, by any measure, of any new school in Virginia.

    There is one major logical contradiction that is useful to highlight. The City Council, by their actions, and the City Manager, by the limits of information he is willing to provide Falls Church voters have expressed an antipathy toward any projection longer than five years. The City Manager has gone as far as to say that long term projections are “useless” and only serve to “muddy the waters”. Granted that the longer the projection period the less accurate the projection.

    If any projection longer than 5 years is “useless” why are we contemplating building a High School that uses a 13 year enrollment projection as the lynch pin for justifying the construction of a school that can accommodate 1,500 students by the year 2030.

    Either long term Capital and Operating cost projections are of virtually no value as the City Council/City Manager believe or they have value and can accurately predict future student enrollment 12 years out as is believed by the School Board, and City Council/City Manager.

    It cannot be both.

    Projections can not be “cherry picked” so that the one that yields the most useful number is considered accurate while other projections won’t even be prepared for fear of producing unwanted results.


    As a number of thoughtful voters, including an ex School Board official have already expressed the idea of seeking a renovation/modular expansion plan that allows the High School to grow as projected/demonstrated enrollment increases take place. Competitive bids could be submitted that indicate what can be provided for a given amount of funding; e.g., a funding availability of $70 million, $80 million or another figure.

    Other than a “hell bent” desire to spend a $120 million, opposition to the modular approach is difficult to comprehend. The $120 million figure was not presented to Falls Church decision makers in tablet form; it can be changed.

    We need to have a more common sense approach to the size and funding of renovation/expansion of GMHS. The current Referendum should not be approved while more efficient and potentially less costly alternatives have not been explored.

  2. Alison Kutchma | October 27, 2017 at 10:08 pm | Reply

    Thank you for doing the deep dive into the financial side of all of this Sam. This is a real public service to do this research for us all. No matter what folks feel about the vote I think they need to at least consider this information.

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