After years of shorting maintenance funds to pay for more immediate needs during lean budget years, Fairfax County and its public school system are facing a growing backlog of roof replacements, heating and cooling system overhauls, parking lot repaving and other major maintenance items.
Fairfax County has about $48 million per year in major maintenance needs, according to staff estimates, and the school system has about $104 million per year worth of projects on its list of needed items.
On top of keeping up existing buildings, Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with ballooning student enrollment and county leaders are trying to plan for the new parks, police and fire stations and other facilities to serve a growing population.
On the county side, the construction needs amount to $110 million to $187 million per year. For schools, the need is estimated as high as $242 million per year.
A joint committee of the Board of Supervisors and the School Board began delving into the issues earlier this year and is working towards some initial recommendations of how the county can address this backlog.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), co-chair of the Infrastructure Financing Committee, suggested at a meeting Wednesday that both agencies should commit to funding maintenance needs out of their operating budgets, as well as setting up capital renewal funds to start setting money aside for future needs.
This idea was a tough sell for the School Board members serving on the committee, as it would represent a shift in how the school system has been funding its projects.
FCPS has been funding many of its big-ticket maintenance projects using bond funding, while the county only uses bond dollars for major renovations and new construction.
Cook and Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee) said that funding maintenance needs through the operating budget would free up bond money for school expansion and construction to help address the capacity needs at the county’s public schools.
However, School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully District), the other co-chair of the Infrastructure Committee, said it is hard to make the public understand why the school system would be spending operating funds on a new roof, rather than in the classroom.
“They don’t equate that as something that is helping kids,” Smith said.
Not only are their financing approaches different, but the county government and schools use different terminology to describe their programs. For example, what the county refers to as “capital renewal,” the school system terms “major maintenance.”
Cook said that getting everyone on the same page with terminology is a small but important starting point to working to solve the problem.
“It makes it difficult … to decide how to make policy when we define words differently,” Cook said.
Another top priority on the county side is to conduct an updated inventory of county facilities to determine what renewal projects will be needed in the coming years. The $48 million per year estimate is based on assessments that are nearly a decade old.
“These things are getting worse by the day,” McKay said. The inventory “is a long process and we really need to get a handle on that.”
In December, the committee will discuss possible ways to fund the maintenance and construction backlog.