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Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by James Jarvis)

As anticipated, Fairfax County is looking at a tight budget for the coming year that will once again lean primarily on residential property owners to offset a declining commercial tax base.

County Executive Bryan Hill has proposed a 4-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, even as he presented an advertised fiscal year 2025 budget to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors yesterday (Tuesday) that largely limits spending to obligations like public schools and employee compensation.

If adopted, this would be the county’s first real estate tax rate increase in six years, Hill said in a message to the board. Last year, Hill proposed a flat tax rate that the board ultimately reduced by 1.5 cents to $1.095 per $100 of assessed value, though property owners still saw their bills go up by $412, on average, due to rising home values.

The proposed tax rate of $1.135 per $100 for FY 2025, which starts on July 1, would raise the average tax bill by just over $524 and generate $129.28 million in revenue, according to the county.

“We are seeing some residential growth, but our commercial values have declined, resulting in an overall real estate growth of just over 2.7%,” Hill said. “Paired with significant expenditure pressures — particularly for employee pay and benefits, transportation requirements, and continued inflationary impacts — balancing this proposed budget has required difficult decisions.”

Home values up, commercial values down

Real estate tax revenue provides about 66% of the county’s general funds, which supports most county operations, from public safety agencies to libraries and parks. For FY 2025, more than three-quarters of that revenue (76.7%) will come from residential owners, who are facing an average assessment increase of 2.86% for 2024.

Though the number of home sales in the county last year declined, prices have continued to climb “due to low inventory,” Hill said. The average value of the county’s over 357,000 taxable residential properties for 2024 is $744,526, up from $723,825 in 2023.

By contrast, non-residential property values have dropped for the first time in three years by 1.24%, a dip mostly driven by a struggling office market. About 21.6 million square feet, or 17.2%, of the county’s 119.5 million square feet of office space is vacant — an uptick from last year’s rate of 16.7%, which was already a 10-year high.

With another 1 million square feet of office space under construction, mostly in Metro’s Silver Line corridor, the pressure to revitalize or replace under-utilized office buildings will likely only intensify going forward.

“That space is going to be snapped up quickly, which is going to create situations around our county that will be then vacant,” Hill said when asked by Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk about possible remedies. “We have to figure out ways to fill those spaces, whether it is converting or doing something different on that plot of land. We have done a pretty good job in certain areas of revitalizing…but we need to do more.”

Schools and compensation dominate spending

With some growth projected from other sources, including an 8.8% increase in personal property taxes and a proposed 10-cent-per-pack increase in taxes on cigarettes, the county anticipates getting $363.22 million more in revenue than it did this budget year.

However, Hill says he proposed spending only on “adjustments which I feel are essential to maintain the quality workforce and dependable services upon which our residents rely.” Read More

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Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s current admissions policy will remain in place after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a lawsuit alleging that it discriminates against Asian students.

The Supreme Court denied a petition for a hearing today (Tuesday) by the Coalition for TJ, an advocacy group that sued the Fairfax County School Board in 2021 after the admissions process for the highly competitive magnet school was revised with the goal of diversifying the student body.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case ends a legal battle that lasted nearly three years and could’ve upended diversity initiatives in public education nationwide.

“We have long believed that the new admissions process is both constitutional and in the best interest of all of our students,” said School Board Chair Karl Frisch, who represents Providence District. “It guarantees that all qualified students from all neighborhoods in Fairfax County have a fair shot at attending this exceptional high school.”

The school board voted in December 2020 to eliminate a standardized test and application fee that were previously required for students seeking admittance into Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ). The board also raised the minimum grade point average for applicants, guaranteed eligibility to the top 1.5% of eighth graders at each middle school and added essay requirements and consideration of “experience factors” such as a student’s status as a recipient of free meals or involvement in special education.

Spurred by student activism after Fairfax County Public Schools reported that fewer than 10 Black students had been accepted in both 2019 and 2020, the policy overhaul has resulted in more diverse classes at TJ, particularly in terms of geography and income, since the changes took effect in 2021 for the Class of 2025.

Though Asian students got 61.6% of offers for the freshman class that entered last fall, compared to 19% for white students, 6.7% for Black students and 6% for Hispanic students, the Coalition for TJ has argued that the revised policy was designed to reduce the number of Asian students at the school, violating Constitutional protections against racial discrimination.

A district court judge agreed with the coalition in 2022 that Asian American students were “disproportionately harmed,” ordering FCPS to scrap the new admissions policy. However, that ruling was overturned last May by an appeals court panel that found the coalition had failed to prove that the school board “adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent.”

The coalition petitioned the Supreme Court to pick up the case after the justices ruled in June 2023 that colleges can’t explicitly consider race as part of their admissions processes, ending decades of affirmative action programs intended to boost Black, Hispanic and other often underrepresented students.

Pacific Legal Foundation senior attorney Joshua Thompson, who represented the Coalition for TJ, says the Supreme Court “missed an important opportunity” to address admissions policies like the ones adopted for TJ that don’t explicitly consider race but still affect student demographics.

“Today, the American Dream was dealt a blow, but we remain committed to protecting the values of merit, equality, and justice,” Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani said in a statement. “…For the courageous families who have tirelessly fought for the principles that our nation holds dear, this decision is a setback but not a death blow to our commitment to the American Dream, which promises equal opportunity and justice for all.”

In a statement from FCPS, Frisch noted that TJ has accepted students from every Fairfax County middle school and maintained an average grade-point average for its incoming classes of 3.9 over the past three years.

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Coates Elementary School in Herndon has been prioritized for a boundary adjustment (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County Public Schools is attempting to streamline its approach to managing capital projects to reduce costs and overcrowding in schools.

The school board approved a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) last Thursday, Feb. 8 for fiscal years 2025-2029 with multiple amendments intended to help lower costs, speed up select school renovations, meet green energy goals and enhance the process for tracking infrastructure projects.

The $1.3 billion, five-year plan allocates funding for the following projects:

  • Construction of the planned Dunn Loring Elementary School
  • A new wing to Justice High School
  • Relocation of modular buildings
  • Renovation of 18 elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools
  • Acquisition of land for one new high school

The revised CIP highlights a need to address overcrowding and capacity issues within the school system, with many schools nearing a critical tipping point.

Coates Elementary School in Herndon, for instance, is currently operating at 131% of its student capacity — a figure projected to rise to 172% by 2028. Crowding has been an issue for over 10 school years, according to the CIP.

At the moment, eight elementary schools, one middle school and eight high schools are operating beyond capacity, even though student enrollment has dipped from pre-pandemic levels and is expected to level out over the next five years.

Several other elementary schools, including Parklawn in Lincolnia, Mantua and Bailey’s, are expected to surpass student capacity in the coming years, per the capital plan. The same is true of Irving, Kilmer and Glasgow middle schools and Westfield, Centreville, McLean, Woodson, Robinson and Chantilly high schools.

The school board voted last week to add Coates and Parklawn as priorities for boundary adjustments, even as several members argued a more comprehensive approach to overcrowding issues is needed.

Parklawn is 96% capacity right now, but it’s projected to reach 112% by the 2028-2029 school year. It will still trail McLean’s Kent Gardens Elementary School, which will be at 113% capacity even after boundary adjustments were approved last year.

“The problem that I see, while we’re fixing these two tonight, if we don’t fix the process and fix other schools, we’re going to have Coates and Parklawns popping up like hotcakes across Fairfax County, and I don’t want to be in that position,” At-Large School Board Representative Kyle McDaniel said.

The board tasked Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid with formulating a “facility infrastructure policy” and establishing a system to track projects to be presented to the board later this year.

“I see an eagerness on this board, which I’m very excited about, to really look holistically and comprehensively at our infrastructure needs, our funding, and really get sort of our hands wrapped around the policies that relate to infrastructure, but also an overarching policy that guides our decisions regarding infrastructure,” Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

Board members also asked Reid to propose options for funding capital projects.

Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie Meren expressed an interest in initiatives such as “swing spaces” — pre-existing facilities that students and staff can temporarily relocate to during construction.

“The benefit of that is that renovations could go quicker, which means they could also cost less money,” she said.

Over in neighboring Arlington County, a plan to turn an elementary school into a swing space got nixed last year after an outcry by current and future parents.

Reid is expected to present cost-saving options and the facility infrastructure policy to the school board on April 25. Additionally, she is scheduled to submit a plan for tracking infrastructure projects on May 7.

Image via Google Maps

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Luther Jackson Middle School entrance (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Luther Jackson Middle School students will have to wait for their first dance of the year.

The Valentine’s Day dance scheduled for this afternoon (Wednesday) has been postponed after threats of gun violence at the Merrifield school (3020 Gallows Road) were discovered earlier this week.

While Fairfax County police say there “does not appear to be any substantial threat at this time,” Luther Jackson officials announced the postponement yesterday (Tuesday) “out of an abundance of caution.”

“As soon as we have a new date selected, we will let everyone know,” the school said in a newsletter bulletin. “All tickets already purchased will be honored on the new event date once selected. Regular after-school activities will proceed as usual, and previously canceled activities have been added back on to the signup form.”

The first threat came in the form of graffiti found in a school restroom late Monday (Feb. 12) afternoon, Luther Jackson principal Raven Jones said in a message sent to parents at 8:14 p.m. that day. The graffiti made a “vague” threat that there would be a shooting at the school on “Thursday.”

“We notified the Office of Safety and Security and the Fairfax County Police who have responded, checked the school and begun an investigation,” Jones wrote. “Fairfax County Police continue to investigate but do not believe that there is a valid threat to the school based solely on this graffiti.”

As a precaution, additional security personnel were assigned to the school yesterday morning.

However, a second anonymous threat was found circulating on social media, claiming that there would be a shooting and possibly a bomb at Luther Jackson Middle School this Thursday, Feb. 15. The message appears to have first emerged on Instagram before getting shared on Twitter.

In an update sent to parents at 9:21 a.m. yesterday, Jones said school officials were “aware of the additional social media post also referencing a school shooting on Thursday.”

Fairfax County Police and our Office of Safety and Security are actively investigating. I do not have any further information to share at this time but will update you as soon as we are able. Additional safety and security staff will be monitoring our school.

The safety of our students is our primary concern, and we will always investigate these incidents as soon as we are made aware.

If you or your student has any information to share about this situation, please contact our Office of Safety at 571-423-2000 or through our anonymous safety tip line that you can access online, by text or by phone.

The Fairfax County Police Department says its investigation into the social media threat is ongoing, though there isn’t believed to be a “substantial” threat at this time.

“We urge the community to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity promptly,” the FCPD said. “Additionally, we encourage individuals to refrain from sharing unverified information on social media platforms to prevent unnecessary panic. The Fairfax County Police Department is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all individuals, and we will continue to work diligently to resolve this matter.”

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The Fairfax County Public Schools administrative center in Merrifield (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools is stepping up its requests for funding this year from both local and state leaders.

The school system is seeking an additional $254 million from Fairfax County for fiscal year 2025 — about 10.5% more than last year — to help fund a projected $301.8 million, or 8.6%, budget increase, FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid reported in a presentation to the school board on Thursday (Feb. 8).

According to Reid, the increase is necessary for FCPS to meet the needs of all its students and adequately compensate its staff, even though student enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels and no new initiatives are included in the proposed $3.8 billion budget.

With the county government bracing for a tight budget year itself, Reid stressed that the local request could be reduced if Virginia contributes more than the $42.2 million increase currently expected based on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed funding plan for the state.

“What I’m presenting…is what I believe we need to resource and sustain the excellent work that our staff are doing today and compensate our staff into the future to keep us competitive, with the hope that as our General Assembly deliberates…they’ll see the necessity of actually allocating a greater amount of state funding, which will help us out in terms of our county transfer,” Reid told the school board.

The disparity between the local and state funding for public education has long frustrated both county and FCPS leaders, who argue that the formula used to calculate funding needs for each school division is outdated and shortchanges Fairfax County — one of the wealthiest counties in the Commonwealth, but also its biggest and most populous.

Those grievances got validated last year when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission released an anticipated study that found Virginia spends about $1,900 less per student than the national average, falling below nearby states like Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky.

If the Commonwealth matched the 50-state average, it would allocate $345 million to FCPS, according to Reid.

“So, just funding us at the average would be more than what we’re actually asking for in additional funds,” she said.

Multiple school board members acknowledged that the size of the funding request may give some community members pause, especially with only a modest growth in enrollment projected for FY 2025, which starts on July 1.

Fairfax County Public Schools student enrollment is rising but remains below fiscal year 2020 levels (via FCPS)

According to the proposed budget, FCPS expects to have 181,701 students next school year. Enrollment has ticked up over the past few years, reaching an estimated 180,398 students this year, but before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered classrooms in March 2020, the school system had over 188,000 students. Read More

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A rainy night lies ahead, as seen on a traffic camera at Gallows Road near Yorktowne Center in Merrifield (via VDOT)

Fairfax County Public Schools will start classes two hours late tomorrow (Tuesday) in case there’s snow.

No weather alerts have been issued for the county yet, but the National Weather Service’s current forecast indicates that rain is expected to continue through tonight, potentially turning into snow early in the morning.

“New snow accumulation of less than a half inch possible,” the NWS says.

According to the Capital Weather Gang, weather models suggest the rain could turn into snow around 6-9 a.m., with the heaviest snowfall coming around 7-10 a.m.

Reston Community Center has already canceled all programs tomorrow, but its pool will open at 9 a.m.

Image via VDOT

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Annandale High School Orchestra Director Annie Ray with some of her students (courtesy FCPS)

(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) Annandale High School’s orchestra director is on her way to Los Angeles for the upcoming Grammy Awards.

Annie Ray, who teaches music and leads the orchestra program at the school, is the winner of the 2024 Grammy Music Educator Award, CBS Mornings announced today.

Given out by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum, the award honors music teachers who make a “significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education” in schools. It can go to public and private school teachers of students in preschool through college.

Ray’s family, students and colleagues erupted in cheers when her name was announced during a watch party in Annandale High School’s auditorium, according to Fairfax County Public Schools.

“It’s been a whirlwind experience!” Ray said in a press release. “I’m so thankful to all the people who have poured love into me to allow me to make music. I am honored to have been selected from a remarkable group of educators.”

As the award winner, Ray will get a $10,000 honorarium and a matching grant to support her school’s music program. She was chosen from 10 finalists and more than 2,000 nominees.

Recognized by FCPS just last year as its Region 2 Outstanding Secondary School Teacher, Ray’s three-year tenure at Annandale High has already included the creation of a Crescendo Orchestra for students with severe developmental or intellectual disabilities and an FCPS Parent Orchestra where parents learn to play the same instrument as their kids.

The parent orchestra attracts over 150 parents every year, according to FCPS, which describes Ray as a “passionate advocate for universal access to quality music education.”

“Annie is known for her passion, skill, and belief that every student can achieve greatness,” Annandale High School Principal Shawn DeRose said to FCPS. “Her impact and dedication has made a positive difference in the school community. She truly is an inspiration, and we are so proud of her.”

Before joining Annandale High, Ray taught at Glasgow Middle School in Lincolnia and Annandale Terrace Elementary School.

In an interview with CBS News correspondent Jamie Waxman, Ray said playing in Annandale’s symphony orchestra teaches students confidence and gives them the willingness to make a wrong note. Students describe her as a leader “who doesn’t lead” but instead talks to and encourages them.

The show surprised Ray with a congratulations video from British singer-songwriter Jacob Collier, whose song “Little Blue” became a source of solace after a close friend of hers died.

Ray will officially receive the Music Educator Award at the 66th annual Grammy Awards ceremony, which will air at 8 p.m. this Sunday (Feb. 4) on CBS.

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A Fairfax County Public Schools bus parked at Vienna Elementary School (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Teacher recruitment, school safety and controlling class sizes have been designated as top priorities for funding by the newly sworn-in Fairfax County School Board.

However, the county’s expected financial constraints may make it challenging for the board’s entire wish list to get funded in the upcoming budget cycle, which will start July 1.

Last week, the school board approved a resolution to serve as a guide for Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid as she crafts the school system’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget.

The resolution highlights improving teacher compensation, particularly for special education and Title 1 schools, as a key priority. Board members also stressed the importance of increasing access to universal breakfast and lunch programs, reducing school meal debt, expanding preschool options, lowering class sizes, and providing additional funding for mental health and academic support.

While some of those priorities are broad in scope, Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted the board has been discussing these issues with the superintendent and her staff in both public and private meetings for months.

“This is not a surprise,” she said. “They have been part of these conversations, and they understand what the board finds important.”

Aside from Anderson, Braddock District Representative Rachna Sizemore Heizer, and Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie Meren, who supported the resolution, most school board members are newcomers who were not part of the initial discussions on the board’s budget priorities last year.

Despite that, Anderson noted that the new members — all elected in November with Democratic endorsements — have shown strong support for many of the same issues as the previous board, which was similarly all Democratic.

“There was a lot of overlap with what the former board found important and with what the new board finds important,” she said.

Still, there is the hurdle of getting the county on board.

Fairfax County staff told the school board and the Board of Supervisors at a joint meeting last November to prepare for a tough budget year, forecasting a $284.5 million shortfall mainly due to a “flat real estate market,” according to the county website.

At a Nov. 14 school board work session, FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leigh Burden predicted a $202.6 million gap in the revenue needed to fund a 6% salary increase for all FCPS employees, address rising student service demands, and cover inflationary costs.

FCPS has a total operating budget for the current fiscal year of $3.5 billion — a $221.7 million increase from the previous cycle.

The superintendent is set to present her budget proposal to the school board next Tuesday, Feb. 6. How her office will address the revenue gap and incorporate the school board’s priorities into the proposal remains unclear.

However, Anderson said she doesn’t anticipate the school board’s entire wish list will be fulfilled.

“They’re big ticket items, and there’s only so much you can do in any given year,” she said.

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Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

The upcoming capital projects plan for Fairfax County Public Schools comes with questions and uncertainties about future planning to address overcrowding and school capacity issues throughout the school system earlier this month.

Unveiled earlier this month, the new Capital Improvements Program (CIP) covers fiscal years 2025 through 2029. It sets the location, timing and funding of new schools, renovations and other capital projects over a five-year period.

At a Fairfax County School Board work session on Jan. 9, staff shared that the CIP accounts for cost increasesassociated with inflation, labor and materials increases, and prevailing wage.

Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson pressed staff for answers how when schools in her district — namely Weyanoke Elementary School, Belvedere Elementary School and Luther Jackson Middle School — will be slated for renovation.

“Their buildings are highly problematic,” Anderson said.

Janice Szymanski, the school system’s chief of facility services and capital programs, a newly created position, said staff are working on building consensus on the renovation queue, which was last updated in 2009. The new line-up that’s currently under development isn’t reflected in the CIP at the moment.

FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid also acknowledged that the renovation process has become “a bit muddled over time,” raising the need for the new queue.

“We don’t intend to be weasely as staff, but I do think we’re building the process while we take the input, so I want to manage expectations,” Reid said.

Major projects within the next five years include construction of Dunn Loring Elementary School, capacity improvements at Justice High School and the renovation of 22 schools.

The 10-year plan projects new construction of a Silver Line elementary school and a western high school, Pinewood Lakes Early Childhood Center, Tysons Elementary School, Pimmit Hills, and Virginia Hills.

Seema Dixit, the board’s new Sully District member, said she was especially concerned about overcrowding issues on the western side of the county.

“That’s where we have to put our brains together and find some creative ways,” Dixit said, noting that land acquisition for some schools is coming far too late.

Staff hope to lay out a new renovation queue that will establish how renovations — major and minor — are planned. The current renovation line-up has funding for planning, design or construction projects through 2031.

So far, a consultant worked with stakeholders in early 2023 to create possible criteria for new facilities. Phase two of the update includes compiling data and reviewing a new queue. The final phase of the project would incorporate the new system into the annual CIP and future bond referenda.

School board members also lamented a lack of sufficient progress on pursuing net-zero energy goals. Solar power purchase agreements are in place for Annandale High School and Mason Crest Elementary School.

At-large board member Ryan McElveen said he was particularly dismayed about limited progress on ensuring schools are ready for solar power, adding that he and fellow returning at-large member Ilryong Moon developed a list of 90 schools that were on track for being solar ready when they left the board in 2019.

“That is a major blow. Obviously there are reasons for all of this and this is not just an FCPS problem. This is a county problem as well,” McElveen said, referencing the challenges that the county government has faced in implementing solar projects.

Overall, total student membership is expected to remain flat over the next five years. The county’s demographic report also projects a decline in the school-aged population through next year.

School board action on the budget is expected on Feb. 8, followed by official release of the final CIP in mid-February. A public hearing was held on Jan. 18.

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Snow on leaves (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The D.C. area is expected to be hit with another round of snow tomorrow (Friday), prompting Fairfax County Public Schools to call for its second snow day this week.

All schools and central offices will be closed tomorrow, FCPS announced at 5:25 p.m. today. The closure includes extracurricular activities, field trips and other events on school grounds.

Classes were also canceled on Tuesday (Jan. 16) and started two hours late Wednesday after the region got more than an inch of snow for the first time in nearly two years.

The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Weather Advisory for Fairfax County that will take effect from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow. One to three inches of accumulated snow are possible, adding onto the three to five inches that fell earlier this week and have yet to fully melt.

The Virginia Department of Transportation says its Northern Virginia District crews started spot-treating roads with brine today and will continue once snow begins to fall tomorrow morning.

Here’s the full winter weather alert from the NWS:

…WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY IN EFFECT FROM 4 AM TO 7 PM EST FRIDAY…

* WHAT…Snow expected. Total snow accumulations of 1 to 3 inches north of US-50/I-66 with amounts around 1 inch to the south.

* WHERE…Portions of central and southern Maryland, The District of Columbia and northern and northwest Virginia.

* WHEN…From 4 AM to 7 PM EST Friday.

* IMPACTS…Plan on slippery road conditions. The hazardous conditions will impact the morning commute.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

Slow down and use caution while traveling.

When venturing outside, watch your first few steps taken on steps, sidewalks, and driveways, which could be icy and slippery, increasing your risk of a fall and injury.

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