Rookie Alexandria city councilors outline goals for the coming months

By Melissa Quinn

Alexandria’s two rookie city council members took the reins of power Tuesday night, and they have big plans for the coming months.

Education and affordable housing issues top City Councilor John Chapman’s to-do list this year. Chapman, who has a background in education, hopes to work with the school board to manage the budget and promote education as a strategic investment, one that shapes Alexandria’s future leaders, politicians, and businessmen and women.

“I know my limitations because I’m not on the school board,” he said. “And there’s only so much policy I can bug them about. But I want to make sure we look at best practices from around the nation and make sure we can incorporate those.”

Specifically, Chapman wants to look into school construction in Alexandria. Superintendent Morton Sherman made it clear new buildings are necessary to address the district’s overcrowing problem, though Chapman worries the reason behind the building projects could get lost.

“The focus is going to be building the best schools for students, not building the best schools to win awards,” he said. “Winning design awards is not going to educate our students.”

While already approved by last year’s council, Chapman wants to take a closer look at the Jefferson-Houston School plan. Though still in the implementation phase, he fears the building may prove too big for the historic Parker-Gray neighborhood.

“What needed to be brought to a head was that this is a footprint you have in the community, and you need to stay within that,” Chapman said. “I’m disappointed to see an overextension into the neighborhood.”

On the affordable housing front — an issue hotly debated during in the run-up to the election — Chapman plans to explore options for partnering with nonprofits who can provide inexpensive residences for Alexandrians.

“We haven’t done that very well in the city, and that’s my belief,” he said. “I think we can do a much better job.”

Chapman suggested expanding the city’s options for affordable housing by working with faith-based organizations and offering housing for those making between $30,000 and $60,000 a year.

“With the housing master plan coming up, we have a great opportunity to look at how we can go about getting housing and what we can do as well,” he said.

Education and affordable housing also are among Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg’s laundry list of issues that she plans to focus on in the coming months. But Silberberg touched on only a few specific initiatives.

“We’re still trying to work out the phone lines at City Hall,” she said.

The vice mayor brought up budgetary issues — including the city’s $18.5 million shortfall — as well as the Potomac Yard Metro, school capacity and sewage treatment plan.

“Those are just a few issues the city council has been presented with,” she said.

On the subject of education, though, Silberberg proposed an apprenticeship program to encourage residents to volunteer with students and affirmed her “commitment to education.”

To meet lack-of-transparency complaints leveled by residents in recent months, the freshmen councilors vowed to increase civic engagement. Silberberg has proposed a monthly gathering at local coffee houses, while Chapman hopes to meet with residents where they feel most comfortable — in their homes.

“Getting people involved, it’s sort of my story,” Chapman said. “Somebody really involved me. Somebody took the time to tell me about city government and the things going on. It’s paying it forward in a way.”

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