By Mark Kaye, JD/MBA
- New mixed use developments (MUDs) and large apartments drive 52% of growth in Schools
- Schools going from small and unique to super-sized
- Pro-developer school board candidates downplay issue with erroneous statistics
- Current MUD path is an unsustainable burden on homeowners
Our small and unique FCC school system continues to mushroom in size – driven by new mixed use developments (MUDs) and large apartment buildings. In 2002 our schools had 1800 kids, now we are at 2515 with more expected to join during the 2015-16 year. The character of our schools is fundamentally changing from small to large. The Little City is looking more like a subdivision of Fairfax County.
Pro-developer school board and city council candidates either ignore this issue or downplay it with erroneous and misleading statistics.
With so much in scarce tax dollars going to school expansion to accommodate the growth – one must wonder how much be available for instructional purposes. We could be in a situation of placing “bricks over books” as the City taxpayers do not have unlimited financial resources.
Sources of Growth in our Schools
Contrary to statements from the ‘smart growth’ crowd and certain FCC political candidates who cozy up to any developer that targets FCC, the growth in the number of school kids is propelled in substantial part by MUDs/large apartment buildings. Using the latest data available from the school system (2015), the new MUDs (Pearson, Northgate, Spectrum, etc.) have added 183 kids. This is 28% of the growth in the school system since 2002. Add in older apartment complexes such as Oakwood, The Fields and Merrill House – 52% of the growth is driven by apartments and MUDs.
More are on the way … Rushmark (enormous building under construction on Broad Street) and Tinner Hill (next to Pearson) will per City estimates add another 60-100 kids when they go online. If we hold all else constant and use the mid-point of 85 more kids when Tinner Hill and Rushmark go online in 2016 then we see that MUDs/apartments are the primary growth driver for kids to our schools at a whopping 57%.
These large apartment complexes (new MUDs and older) are problematic in that they have been adding kids to the school system at a faster pace than the overall growth of the school system for the same period of 2002 to 2015. Some examples of this growth in kids attending City schools: Oakwood 67 to 142, Merrill House 37 to 63, and Roosevelt Towers 36 to 54.
Single family homes have contributed a fair share to the growth – but at a more modest 39% rate (34% when counting Rushmark and Tinner). Townhomes only grew 9% and diversified housing (Cherry Hill and Whittier) is flat.
Where our Kids Live
When looking at where all kids live for the period 2002 to 2015 – the number of kids in the school system from apartments/MUDs went from 18% to 27%. During the same period the percent of kids from single family homes dropped from 68% to 60%. Townhomes only increased from 4% to 6% and diversified housing declined.
Once again, if include Tinner and Rushmark and assume at mid-point of 85 more kids, the number of kids from apartments/MUDs is even more pronounced.
Our Serious Financial Situation
Due to this significant growth our FCC school system is turning into a construction company. More problematic – the new MUDs are not generating new tax revenue to cover the enormous costs to build new schools or expand existing ones. City tax revenue data shows that all of the new MUDs in the past decade are only adding $2.8M net revenue per year to our city coffers. Net tax revenue is ‘new’ tax revenue minus cost of more city services (e.g., police, fire, teachers, etc.). If we factored in tax revenue generated on the MUD sites pre-development, then the $2.8M number would be decreased by $250-300K.
It is erroneous and extremely misleading to use ‘gross’ revenue from new MUDs as gross revenue does not disaggregate the net new tax revenue to the City (that is, before the cost of City services). Some local politicians, their developer friends, and local media use gross revenue in an apparent attempt to mislead voters. The gross for the MUDs is $7M; however, the net revenue of $2.8M is the proper number to use.
To compound matters, the City’s own fiscal impact analyses concerning the development of MUDs do not include the cost of building new infrastructure. That is, the ‘net revenue’ does not include the potential cost of new classroom and schools driven by more kids from MUDs. Thus, we get more kids but not more revenue to cover the costs of new or expanded infrastructure.
The cost of a new high school – estimated at $100M – will not be paid for by the current MUDs nor any of the new ones coming online (Rushmark and Tinner), and it is doubtful the proposed MUDs such as Mason Row will come anywhere near to bridging the enormous gap between what we receive in tax revenue and the funds needed to build a new high school.
Moreover, if the number of kids continues to increase, we may face a situation where the ‘feeder schools’ such as Thackrey, Mount Daniel, Thomas Jefferson, and Mary Ellen Henderson may require further expansion.
To rectify this situation, we need to place a moratorium on all new MUDs until we have a strategic vision and plan for our City – that is financially sustainable and preserves the small town feel of FCC. The current ad-hoc model of allowing the construction of large apartment buildings in the City is adding enormous costs to taxpayers without clear benefits (unless we want to look like Ballston … or just rename FCC to “Fallston”). Such poorly planned growth will eventually remove one of the major reasons people wish to buy a home in FCC … small and unique schools.
Some of our school board candidates seem to believe that we can build our way out of our financial situation by allowing aggressive developers to run amok over the City. This has obviously failed. During the same decade of rapid MUD growth – we have witnessed real estate taxes rise 30%. We are not generating the tax revenue to keep up with school growth and we are irreparably changing the character of FCC.
During the moratorium – as a community – we must build a strategic plan that will preserve the uniqueness of the
Little City and put on us on a financial foundation that does not entail constant tax increases or expansion of our schools to Fairfax County size.
In the tight confines of 2.2 square miles of land – we must be realistic and practical in what we can support and sustain – including the need to maintain green space. FCC is not Arlington or Fairfax – and we do not wish to imitate them either.
We can do better.
Contact and Additional Information:
Mr. Kaye also has an MBA from The University of Chicago and his law degree is from Georgetown University.
Mr. Kaye can be contacted at KayeForFCCSchools@gmail.com