Shake-up of ACPS capital projects draws scrutiny

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City councilors prodded Alexandria City Public Schools officials about proposed changes to its capital improvement budget last month, in light of news that board members are eliminating a few projects altogether.

The probe came as school board chairwoman Karen Graf presented the district’s request to reorganize its capital budget. The tweaks represent $700,000 in savings from canceled projects, $550,000 in savings from the consolidation of related proposals and the addition of $200,000 for emergency repairs.

Graf said the eliminated projects had been carried over in the budget for several years. Many are simply unfeasible, she said.

“Our emergency repair fund was at $39,000 going into winter,” Graf said. “That’s just irresponsible.”

But City Councilor Paul Smedberg worried about the sheer list of changes to the facilities budget — not to mention the amount of money getting shifted around.

“There are projects that seemed to be ongoing on the list, that we paid for two or three or four times; how are those being addressed?” Smedberg said. “[At] the time when these [canceled projects] were first put on the list, we were told that these were important projects.”

Graf said the moves come as part of a sweeping reform of the school system’s capital improvement department. The overhaul stems from revelations in 2011 of a lack of internal oversight and unauthorized fund transfers among projects. That scandal saw the ouster of several high-ranking district officials and calls for then-Superintendent Morton Sherman’s resignation.

“We’re just now fully staffed in the department, following the [capital improvement projects] incident a few years back,” she said. “We’re now exercising proper oversight … but it takes time to rebuild a department.”

Among the commonly cited projects that have been removed from the budget was a proposed green roof at the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams. While financially planned for several years, officials recently discovered such a development was impossible.

“There are certain projects, like Minnie Howard for example, [that] might have made sense when they were designed six or seven years ago, but they make no sense with the current technology,” said then-acting Superintendent Margaret Walsh at the hearing. “So we’re doing a real, clean scrubbing.”

But Smedberg said in an interview that the 2011 scandal is one of the primary reasons for his concerns.

“We’re in situations sometimes where money apparently was being shifted and funding approved for various projects was shifted around,” Smedberg said. “My basic concern is if a budget is passed that has a funding line on [projects], then those are the projects that get funded. Not, ‘Oh, we can wait a year or two or use this [money] for that [project].’”

Smedberg said he hopes recent reforms, like the complete retooling of the capital projects department as well as the reinstitution of the school board’s budget and audit committee, will provide better oversight. But he will continue keeping a close eye on the facilities budget.

“We’ll take that on good faith, that’s what they told us that night, and I do hope that’s the case,” he said. “The city has to balance a lot of capital projects — both from the school board and the city’s perspective over the next several years. We have to have confidence that the list and priorities we do get are in line with what they need, so we can weigh that as an entire package during the budget process.”

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