david kerr H&S

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Poor old Ferry Farm Elementary School. It’s not feeling so well.

At 64 years of age, it’s the oldest, non-renovated school building in the inventory.  

It’s served the county well, but over the past few years it has ample reason to feel neglected.  That is, if buildings have any feelings at all, which I think they do. Well, kind of.

As Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."  But, aside from a philosophical discussion on the metaphysical effects of large inanimate objects on the human psyche, all our buildings, from time to time, need attention, and Ferry Farm Elementary is no exception.

The question is a common one when it comes to schools. Namely, build or to renovate.  Last year, the Stafford County School Board decided it wanted to build a new school. The board felt that the old design — the choppier, smaller classrooms and the inefficient use of space —precluded renovation. They may be right.

However, the Board of Supervisors, not too keen on another new school, persuaded school board members to change their minds and pursue a renovation option.  

Unfortunately, the estimates on renovation came in a bit higher than expected, and supervisors weren’t happy.  Now, it seems, Ferry Farm Elementary is caught in the middle, and no one seems to know what to do next.

Stafford has tended to renovate most of its older school.  Though it has, from time to time, built new ones. Stafford and Grafton Village elementary schools have been renovated.  There were also substantial renovations to Brooke Point and Colonial Forge high schools.

However, the school system chose to build a new Moncure Elementary School and demolished the old Stafford High School in favor of a brand new one.

Lots of school systems face this kind of problem.  The buildings just get old and need upgrades and repair.  

A dozen or so old elementary schools in Fairfax County, built for Baby Boomers in the 1950s and ’60s, have received extensive renovations over the past few years.  It’s just a normal cost in the management of a facility.

However, when it comes to Ferry Farm Elementary School it’s future has become a political issue, and a clouded one at that. Which it shouldn’t be.  

The question should be based on capacity and facility requirements.  After that, it’s a basic capital investment analysis. Assuming each option accomplishes the same objective, then it’s a comparison of the discounted net present value of each option over its projected life cycle.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. You pick the alternative that has the smallest life cycle cost.  

Unfortunately, no one seems to have done this kind of in-depth comparison analysis.  There are estimates for each option, but a comparison of the two — including their life cycle costs as well as an analysis of their respective benefits (quantifiable and non-quantifiable), the business case if you like — seems to be lacking.

This can be fixed, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.   In every economic analysis of construction alternatives, there are lots assumptions.  That’s where it can get complicated. Renovation is a good example.

Nailing down the costs (forgive the pun) can sometimes be especially difficult.  There are often surprises. For instance, in a recent cost estimate of the renovation option, replacement of the building’s seriously old heating and ventilation system ate up about 15 percent of the project.  

The estimate also included additional space.  Something deemed necessary to put the facility on par with the space allocations, by activity, of other elementary schools.

Is your head hurting yet?  Well, there is more. The renovation option, which would include additions, happens in three phases that occur in 2026 and 2028.  

Then there is the question of funding.  This is practical politics.

When could the schools start making improvements through renovation and when could they complete a new building?  Renovation is often, but not always, cheaper. Demolition costs are modest, and since the project is often phased like this one, returns to students, parents and staff occur more quickly.   

A new building — if the money were somehow available today, which it wouldn’t be — would, at best, not be built for three to five years.  Though, when it comes to new construction, you get the whole package — and it’s not phased in over a decade.

Also, it’s a fair guess that a modern, new facility, would have lower life cycle costs.

Those factors have to be in the business case.  

George Washington District Supervisor Tom Coen, a strong advocate of getting the school up to par, said he just wants to know the cost of each option before deciding whether renovation is better than new construction or vice versa.  He wants to see the comparison.

That’s good management and good thinking.  So, like many, the question is simple: “When do we start?”  

It’s time to agree on the basic assumptions, get the data together, do a deep dive on the business case and make a decision.  Ferry Farm, no matter what the option, needs attention now.

David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.

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