By Chris Papas
If you’re walking into the building from the direction of I-66, you’ll encounter a list of state championships that Oakton has won posted on the exterior of the school. The wall boasts of winning football and basketball seasons, Honor Bands that marched many years ago, and other groups long forgotten. Walk inside the building however, and you will find the history that today’s students are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The dripping ceilings, the malfunctioning toilets, the ability to walk from a freezing hallway into a room doing its best impression of the Saharan Desert; all are a result of Oakton’s 43 years in operation.
Logically, two questions come from a tour of Oakton. The easier of the two is, how did this happen? In short, despite 43 years of abuse by students, Oakton has not received a major renovation since its opening in 1967. That proves a much harder question to answer.
The Queue Ball
Rome wasn’t built in a day and a school isn’t renovated in that period either. Instead, the process begins with a series of inspections that grades a school on four fundamental areas: building space, facility condition, capacity/enrollment factors, and code compliance. The inspections were last completed two years ago and out of a possible score of 100, Oakton scored a 64.54. This score is then used in the creation of the renovation queue list, which ranks all FCPS schools on their building condition. Oakton currently finds itself 30th on the queue list. Kevin Sneed, director of design and construction for FCPS, described recent improvements to the process.
“What we did with this particular queue, in the past, they just looked at the age of the facility, and that was really the only measurement of when the school was going to be renovated. So we incorporated other aspects in the analysis outside of the age. One of the primary ones was, can the school meet the programmatic requirements?”
Once the queue is created, schools await placement on the Capital Improvement Program schedule. The CIP is the process by which schools receive bond money for major renovations, as well as other projects like capacity enhancement. Bonds are voted on each November in a referendum on the ballot. Once the renovation project has been planned and received money, the school can be renovated in somewhere between 20-36 months.
Five for Fighting
Yet that still doesn’t answer why Oakton has not been renovated. That question and its answer lies in the middle of a heated debate. And Oakton is not alone. Four other high schools (West Springfield, Langley, Falls Church, and Herndon) opened in the late 1960’s and have never received major renovations either. The schools, collectively known as the “Legacy Five,” all face similar conditions. Delegate Dave Albo (R-42) attended West Springfield and made the quest for renovations a major platform of his recent successful campaign for reelection. His support of the topic started after a tour of his alma mater.
“We saw some things that really concerned us, some foundational, structural problems. But the parts that really were bad were the fact the old-style school just can’t accommodate new requirements for learning.”
Albo has also lent his support to the community organization Spartans Organized for Action on Renovation (SOAR), a West Springfield group fighting for not only the renovation of their own school, but that of all legacy high schools. The group started after concern in the Springfield community grew about the condition of the school.
“[SOAR] really started in the summer of 2008,” says activist Erik Hawkins, a prominent member of the group, “and it was really a function of just enhancing community efforts that were already underway at the grass-roots level, at the parents’ level, and at the West Springfield High School PTSA level.”
Albo is quick to point out that a school’s condition does not change its spirit.
“You don’t have to have a pretty school to be a good school. But you do have to have lap space, computer lab space, and then eventually, things fall apart.”
Through a combination of community advocacy and timing, West Springfield, along with Langley, found itself placed onto the CIP schedule for renovation earlier this year. They are fourth and fifth on the list, respectively, and renovations on the two schools will begin by 2014.
The $176 Million Elephant In The Room
FCPS is hardly immune to the economic conditions of today. In fact, the school system more closely resembles an E.R. patient than someone in possession of a healthy resistance. Suffering from a projected $176 million budget deficit for the Fiscal Year 2011, new budget cuts were proposed in November. Contained in the proposal was the loss of $2 million dollars for equipment replacement funding and another $600,000 for preventative maintenance. Dean Tistadt, chief operating officer for FCPS, offered a metaphor to describe the county’s maintenance issues.
“We have a $5-6 billion inventory of facilities that we are not taking care of the way we should. And just like at your parent’s house, if you don’t have a guy come in and service your air conditioning every year, service your heat pump every year, it’s not going to last as long as it would have.”
And the budget issues are just the beginning of the problems Fairfax County faces. FCPS is a network of 197 schools, each of which faces the daily wear-and-tear caused by students and staff. Taking care of these facilities, and renovating them when the time comes, is a difficult task that becomes harder as Fairfax County continues to grow. The renovation process was expanded in the early 90’s from a group of repairs and touch-ups to larger building projects which can change whole floor plans at schools. By expanding the scope of renovations, the county increased the cost and difficulty of these activities.
“We’re still far behind where we need to be on [renovating] buildings on a 25 year cycle,” Tistadt says. “We’re going to engage the [School Board] in a conversation on whether we should reduce the scope of renovations from what we do today back toward what we used to do. Not that far back, but to get us back on a 25 year cycle.”
Yet Oakton received the old minor renovations back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and is now in the condition it is in today. Tistadt adds, “There’s pros and cons to both.”
Back To The Future
There is a light at the end of tunnel, though its hard to see form this point. Oakton’s major renovations are scheduled to begin in 2020 with an approximate completion date of 2026. To put this in perspective, future Oakton students who would witness the end of this building project are currently one year old. Tistadt emphasizes that schools are prone to moving up and down on the queue list.
“Schools like Oakton, whatever the number is in the current queue, that location can change when we reevaluate.”
When the renovations start, they will have been a long time coming, But students, present and future, can hope that they will have been worth the wait.