By Melissa Quinn
Alexandria City Council gave school officials the green light to move ahead with construction of a new Jefferson-Houston School in a unanimous vote Saturday.
The decision to approve rezoning came after city councilors heard testimony from students, school board members and neighbors during a lengthy public hearing over the weekend. Following the planning commission’s lead, city council created an advisory group to shepherd the project to completion.
“This is the one school that has received the least amount of capital attention, and it’s high time that a facility that was constructed under a 1970s construct is brought up to the 21st century,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.
The plan calls for a 130,000-square-foot facility, complete with state-of-the-art classrooms and athletic fields. School board members and city councilors jointly drafted a $35.9 million budget for the project.
“The students at Jefferson-Houston work very hard, and we deserve the same high-quality buildings as other Alexandria students,” said Madison Pippa, a sixth-grader at the school.
Once the building is open — tentatively scheduled for the start of the 2014-15 school year — the facility will house more than 700 children, more than double the current student body.
However, several residents expressed concern regarding the flow of traffic in the neighborhood and the school’s academic achievement issues.
“Jefferson-Houston has been contentious and was on a tad difficult path, and as a result, my neighborhood is devoid of children over the age of 6 years old,” said Poul Hertel.
The school recently lost its state accreditation and has struggled to meet Richmond’s benchmarks for reading and math during annual Standards of Learning exams. But school board members in attendance argued that upgraded classrooms and a new building would contribute to students’ successes.
“I am asking for your support,” said Vice Chairwoman Helen Morris. “This is a proud legacy of the school board and city council’s work together.”
The legislation clearly designates the areas of the site slated for use as public open space — namely the relocated Buchanon Park — which will be used for the school.
Alexandria City Public Schools approached the council with plans for a new facility after discovering the school cost $12.7 million to maintain over the next 20 years.
“The students and their teachers deserve better,” said resident and former school board candidate Joyce Rawlings. “They have been the only school who have lived with the open space classrooms of the ’70s, and it’s time to move forward.”