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Fairfax school officials explain TJ renovation price tag

A $90 million price tag on renovations to Thomas Jefferson High School raised eyebrows among parents at other high schools awaiting similar renovations.

However, School Board members explained last week during a vote to approve funding of Thomas Jefferson High School’s renovations that the costs have fallen to $67.44 million. The decrease is the result of a competitive bidding process, after which the School Board approved the lower cost bid.

Several School Board members said they had received emails and other feedback from the community about the estimated $90 million price tag for TJ’s renovations, which was approved by voters under the November 2011 school bond referendum.

TJ was one of six high schools receiving renovations under the fiscal 2014 to 2018 Capital Improvement Program. Other schools included: Marshall ($73 million), Langley ($90 million), West Springfield ($83 million), Herndon ($94 million) and Oakton ($94 million).

School Board members said they did not want parents of students at other schools to think TJ was getting special treatment.

“Every school has a right to be renovated eventually in the queue and I have some very important ones like West Springfield [High School] coming up,” School Board member Elizabeth Schultz said. “So, to have gone from $90 million to $67 million is critical for the taxpayers to know because I think that there was an impression that [TJ students] were getting this $90 million-palooza renovation. One, the facility was sorely in need of it. And I think a lot of the impressions were a stereotype of TJ without knowing the condition of the facility.”

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school, inherited the former Thomas Jefferson High School, a regular high school facility. The building opened as a regional magnet for students, who are gifted in science, technology, engineering and math, in 1985.

Since then, many of TJ’s high-achieving students have gained the school national recognition in U.S. News and World Report’s annual “Best High Schools” ranking. But visitors to the school have commented that the outdated facility does not match the impressive students and staff.

“This is a very important renovation. It’s going to be done a little bit differently than we’ve done some of our other high school renovations,” said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District).

One difference is that TJ is expected to receive as much as $8 million from the TJ Foundation, a fundraising organization for the school.

“They’ve raised $2.5 million so far. But their target is $8 million,” said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville District). The money raised is planned to pay for primarily laboratory technology for students, School Board members said.

Additionally, the school system, which runs and maintains TJ, is asking localities outside of Fairfax County to help pay for the renovations.

Currently, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William counties and the City of Falls Church pay tuition for their students who attend TJ. City of Fairfax students also attend TJ, but the city already pays Fairfax County Public Schools to run its schools.

Costing plans for other jurisdictions have not been created as county school staff was waiting on approval for TJ’s construction bid.

“[The increase] starts with the entering [freshmen class of 2014] and that’s very important to note that because we don’t start renovating TJ until later on and we felt it most appropriate,” Superintendent Jack D. Dale said. “[So] it’s not the next fall’s class [entering in 2013], which is in the middle of being selected, but the following fall’s class, and then each subsequent enrolling class will be charged that amount per pupil to then recuperate the cost for the renovating.”

Other state governor’s schools have also chosen to share construction costs with school users, Dale said.

“We are bearing the cost on this,” Schultz said. “We’re bearing the risks on signing of contracts. It’s affecting Fairfax County’s bond rating. We’re obviously disproportionately carrying the burden. When are we going to get to a decision point on recuperating the costs.”

Jurisdictions may choose to pay a lump sum or a permanent increase in tuition. Dale said the details are still being worked out.

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