Neighbors fume over school project

As school officials move ahead with plans to rebuild the Jefferson-Houston School, jilted neighbors say their concerns about the project have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite a series of community meetings stretching back to September — the most recent held Monday evening — Parker-Gray residents like Daniel Schuman and Dino Drudi argue school officials have been unresponsive and less than transparent with the planning process.

“We’re trying to make evaluations based on incomplete information — we don’t even have the basic facts,” Schuman said. “There hasn’t been a conversation that deals with the basic questions people have.”

Neighbors have taken school officials to task once before, when the idea of using a public-private partnership to pay for the school fueled resident concerns about density, open space and traffic congestion. Officials ultimately shelved the idea in favor of a taxpayer-driven project.

It’s like the film “Groundhog Day,” but so far without the happy ending, Schuman said.

School board member Helen Morris disagrees with Schuman’s description of the process, pointing to the multiple community meetings and a key communicators committee, which includes neighborhood representatives. Communications could always be better, she said, but planners are listening to residents.

The most recent spat flared up between the January and February community meetings. Officials initially presented residents with seven options, some showing the bulk of the new, multistory building facing Cameron Street and others placing it along North West Street.

When they met Monday, school officials returned with just three drawings, all of which anchored the building along North West Street, said Leslie Zupan, president of the West Old Town Citizens Association.

Schuman worries orienting the enlarged building along North West Street will increase congestion, create safety risks, lower private property values and generally disrupt the neighborhood. He was one of several residents to draw up a competing plan, which keeps the bulk of Jefferson-Houston along Cameron Street.

But razing the existing building leaves one insurmountable problem for school administrators: What to do with the students? Staff couldn’t find classroom space in the city to temporarily house the school’s student body, Morris said, which led them to propose the North West Street plans. Building there keeps the school open until work is finished, she said.

Drudi, another neighbor concerned about the project’s impact, draws comparisons to the controversial waterfront plan — now heading to court after months of delay and contentious debate — just with a different city agency.

“It’s how they do business,” he said. “Decision first, facts afterward.”

Schuman won’t go as far as Drudi in comparing the two projects. He’s optimistic neighbors and officials can reach an understanding.

“We’re hoping that by being reasonable the school will make somewhat of an effort to meet us halfway” he said. “If they don’t, there are a lot of people in the community that are going to be unhappy.”

Jefferson-Houston, estimated to cost $41 million when finished in 2014, is the first of several city public schools slated to undergo renovation in the coming years. Planning and work at Patrick Henry is scheduled to begin in 2014 and at Cora Kelly in 2016.

Officials cite the district’s ballooning student population and small, aging buildings as the primary drivers behind the construction work.

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(8) Readers Comments

  1. Could you please correct the title of the article so that it reads, “A Few Neighbors Fume Over School Project”?
    Why can’t these NIMBYs understand that having a new 21st century school right across the street from where they live or very close by will INCREASE their property values?

    The real issue is about having a good school for our community, so get over yourselves, and your property values, and focus on what’s best for our community. It’s not about you.

  2. So let me get this straight: People move into a neighborhood where there’s an existing school then scream bloody murder when said school is renovated.

    If you’re concerned about possible negative externalities associated with living next to a school, then don’t move there! Unless these people have lived there prior to its construction in the early 1960s, they have absolutely no standing to complain.

    NIMBYism at its worst…

  3. What I find most appalling are residents concerned about “Protecting sight lines to the Masonic building”, presumably these would be residnets who can see the Masonic Building from their front door or windows.

  4. The school system has made up it’s mind long ago with regard to how this school will be built. A change of guard come November would solve this building issue. The bigger issue, new building or not, is that ACPS has repeatedly failed this school by allowing it to continue to operate in the same way for over a decade. Revolving leadership, ever changing (and quitting) teachers, name changes (remember when it was laughably called Jefferson Houston School for Arts and Academics?), Goldie Hawn endorsed programs, and a failed public/private partnership have not addressed what truly ails this school, so why should a new building? Neighbors, for and against a new building, should demand that an actual plan be in place to address the abysmal learning environment (67% English SOL pass rate, 62% Math SOL pass rate, 51% writing SOL pass rate, 38% history SOL pass rate, 51% science SOL pass rate) which exists within the confines of JH before they begin going at each other’s throats over “line of sight” differences. New neighbors and existing neighbors should raise a stink over just how poor the performance of this school really is. Raise a stink over the costs of building administration (did you know that there are FOUR building administrators for a school less than half the student population of other elementary schools in Alexandria?) Raise a stink over the costly decision making which has actually produced worse results for this school. These are worthwhile problems which you don’t want to have in your back yard. Sorry…in our school system.

  5. Let us be very clear when we say that this is how only a few people feel. Like us, many of our neighbors have been pleased with the outcomes of the community meetings.

    Also, we find it ironic that Mr. Schuman and a few of his neighbors are complaining that ACPS did not include community input, but they had a PRIVATE meeting to come up with a plan that they labeled a “Neighborhood Plan” that EXCLUDED all other neighbors.

    Additionally, it is our understanding that the reporter, Mr. Perkins, was not present at the last community meeting. Hence, his article is not a representation of the entire meeting. If present, he would have seen positive participation from many community members on the three plans presented. Indeed, from our perspective, many community members were not “fuming.” It would be nice if this article from the Alexandria Times would have reported a balanced view of community opinions on the new Jefferson-Houston building.

    Bottom line: Kids in our community deserve a new building and support from the surrounding neighborhood. Let’s work together and make it happen.

  6. Mrs. Coast, are you really as mean as you seem? School Board member Helen Morris is making out great. Her house sits higher than anyone else’s and she’s getting rid of a school building that sits at her front door. AND she’s getting a whole park, plus no buses or kiss and ride on Cameron Street. Who’s the real NIMBY?

    From what we’ve seen it looks like there isn’t going to be anything that affects your kitchen view. Your house sits right behind the school, correct? AND we have all heard that you went from being JH PTA president to a paid job with the Alexandria school district. Who’s the real NIMBY?

    So tell me. Is NIMBYism ACPS’ latest public relations ploy?

  7. Actually, if you look at plan A and A2, Cameron Street has the kiss and ride exit and entrance. Boyle street has the bus entrance and trash trucks. West street has the bus exit. True that West has the building view but it seems that West st. may be the only place for the school due to financial reasons. I believe the height of the building was reduced from 3 to 2 stories on West st., which is good.

  8. New building or not, I’m not sending my kids there till the scores go up and the principal and staff can get a grip on the numbers of incidences. My view is not affected but I can sympathize with the neighbors who’s views will be. They’ve all paid a ton of money to live there, not to mention the taxes. And they pay in other ways. The view of the Masonic Temple is at least one thing they’ve got going for them.

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