Dunn Loring Elementary School plans advance despite line-jumping worries

The Dunn Loring Administrative Center is expected to be converted back to its original purpose as an elementary school (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Fairfax County Public Schools is moving forward with plans to convert the Dunn Loring Administration Center into an elementary school, despite questions from some school board and community members about the project’s urgency.

The Fairfax County School Board voted 10-0 with two abstentions on March 10 to let staff re-negotiate an existing architecture and engineering contract with the firm Samaha Associates, initiating a planning process that typically takes about two years, according to FCPS Executive Director for Facilities and Transportation Services Jessica Gillis.

The vote also authorized staff to use $2 million from a 2019 schools bond that had been designated for an Oakton-area elementary school until the community objected to the use of Blake Lane Park as a site.

Led by Providence District Representative Karl Frisch, the school board agreed in January 2021 to reallocate the $36.8 million for that project to repurpose the Dunn Loring Center, which currently hosts special education services and programs for parents.

While Dunn Loring Elementary School will serve a different area than the Blake Lane site would have, FCPS staff say it will provide needed capacity relief as the system braces for an expected influx of students from new development in Tysons and Merrifield.

“This is the long game for us, to ensure that we have enough space within this region as we anticipate enrollment growth in this particular Tysons area,” FCPS Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said.

Though the school board supported the repurposing again on Feb. 10 by including it in a new capital improvement program, some members expressed reservations at last week’s meeting after receiving a letter from the McLean Citizens Association that questioned its prioritization over other projects in areas that face more immediate crowding challenges.

Citing enrollment forecasts in the new CIP, the MCA Board of Directors noted that the five elementary schools in the Marshall High School pyramid, where the Dunn Loring school will be located, are all currently between 72 and 99% capacity, and their student populations are projected to decline over the next five years.

In comparison, Kent Gardens Elementary School in the McLean High School pyramid is at 121% capacity right now and projected to still be at 118% in the 2026-2027 school year — around when construction on the Dunn Loring repurposing could be complete.

“We have schools in our area that today are projected to be continued to be over capacity — not 10 years from now, not 15 years from now, but today,” Jim Beggs, who chairs MCA’s education and youth committee, said at a board meeting on March 2. “…We’re not saying [the money] needs to come to us, but we have needs today that are dire now.”

Saying FCPS hadn’t fully addressed MCA’s questions, Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin suggested postponing the vote on the engineering contract by two weeks to let the school board’s Facilities Planning Advisory Council review the project again.

Though she voted to advance the Dunn Loring project, Lee District Representative Tamara Derenak Kaufax said some school board members called her “selfish” when she advocated two years ago for moving up a Route 1 elementary school that isn’t set to start planning work until 2026.

“My sensibilities tend to be founded in fairness in these decisions, and I don’t know that I feel entirely confident based on today’s conversation with where we landed,” said at-large member Abrar Omeish, who joined McLaughlin in abstaining.

Gillis noted that FCPS’ five-year enrollment projections are short-term and don’t take into account development that’s still in the planning stages or under construction, which is why the CIP is updated every year.

Some board members questioned the timing of the objections when the Dunn Loring project has been under discussion for more than a year.

“Any unnecessary delay can throw all of their work off track,” Frisch said. “This project has been vetted six ways from Sunday in excruciating detail and this next step should be approved.”

Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, including McLean, thanked MCA for keeping the board “on our toes” and acknowledged the capacity issues at McLean High School, which underwent a boundary adjustment last year.

As part of that fraught process, Tholen, Frisch, the Providence and Dranesville district supervisors, and community groups formed a work group to reevaluate how FCPS plans facilities in the Tysons area, with the goal of taking a more proactive approach.

“I feel very strongly that what we put in place and what we’re starting to move toward is a much better way of doing planning,” Tholen said. “Given the conversations we’ve been having about what’s happening in Tysons, I think we’re going to need that school there, and I think it’s in a good location.”