By Scott Newsham, Former member of the Alexandria City School Board (2006-2009) and former chair of the facilities committee (2006-2008)
To the editor:
City residents should be skeptical of the 2015-24 capital improvement program budget approved by the Alexandria City School Board on February 6. The board proposes spending more than $18 million of taxpayer money to pay for the school system’s constantly changing capital priorities — and the rationale often is questionable.
Having followed the budget process since interim Superintendent Alvin Crawley proposed his capital improvement program budget December 5, I have not seen evidence of a well-thought-out long-term capital program or a meaningful review by the school board. This was not a surprise given that the board’s facilities committee was disbanded in 2008 and its budget advisory committee — analogous to the city’s budget and financial affairs advisory committee — has only four members, far short of the 12 called for in board policy.
The 29 written questions posed by five board members and the associated staff responses read more like a softball game than an elected body carrying out its fiduciary responsibilities. The public work sessions were much the same.
The following are just three examples of why I’m skeptical of the proposed capital improvement program.
• School buses (10 new buses equaling $890,000): The interim superintendent’s proposal states, “The average life expectancy of a conventional school bus is dependent on mileage, maintenance and repairs, but the recommendation is 12 to 15 years for the conventional school bus. An alternative recommendation is replacement at more than 250,000 miles.”
Similar language is found in previous capital improvement program budget documents.
When board member Marc Williams asked in writing how many buses “are beyond their recommended useful life,” the school district’s director of transportation responded, “The Virginia Department of Education recommends replacement of school buses when they reach 10 years old.” Justifying the school bus and vehicle line item at the January 14 capital improvement program work session, the director of educational facilities said the system’s school buses have hundreds of thousands of miles on them and need replacing.
With a Freedom of Information Act request, I obtained documentation of 105 active district school buses. Seven buses are listed as 14 to 15 years old. The highest mileage bus — a 1999 model — has 143,000 miles.
So what is the district’s criterion for replacing buses? Why has it suddenly shifted? Does the school board really know the condition of its fleet? How much of the proposed $890,000 expenditure is truly essential?
• Rowing facility (building repairs equaling $420,000): This project has been deferred from prior years because of the lack of funds. In justifying the repairs to the wooden siding of the rowing facility in the 2015 budget, the director of educational facilities said the building takes a beating on the water, particularly from saltwater.
Really? Saltwater damage on the upper Potomac River? No board member questioned this assertion. The sea level must be rising much faster than I thought.
• Parker-Gray Stadium press box (replacement equaling $70,000): This item received considerable attention in last year’s budget process but was not funded. There is no debate that the press box at the T.C. Williams stadium is unsafe and needs to be replaced before it’s used again.
I was astonished to listen to statements by district staff members at the January 14 work session that the press box was used this past football season in spite of their belief that its mere presence posed a threat to human life. This begs the question of why this press box remains standing.
What is the real condition of the structure? What does it take to make a decision to remove a hazard? What is the school system and city’s potential exposure for negligence?
The public has been led to believe that things have changed in the school district facilities and capital improvement program. I believe they have, but they have gotten worse.
Now, more than ever, the budget warrants greater public oversight. Unfortunately, if public involvement in the 2015-24 budget process so far is an indicator, this is probably wishful thinking.