Negotiations continue on West End elementary school

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Alexandria City Public Schools plan to retrofit office space on the West End for use as an elementary school continues to move forward, with officials now planning to buy the buildings instead of leasing them.

ACPS initially intended to lease office space at 1701 N. Beauregard St. and the adjoining parking garage at 1705 N. Beauregard St. The roof of the parking garage would be used as a playground, with the possibility of a gymnasium being built in the future to connect the two structures.

But Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley said at a work session Tuesday night with city councilors that the buildings have entered foreclosure, so ACPS intends to purchase them instead.

Crawley said the purchase of the buildings will cost approximately $15 million, with a price tag of just over $23 million to retrofit the office space. Alexandria City School Board vice chairman Chris Lewis added that the purchase would save around $28 million over the first 10 years and $64 million over the first 20 years, compared to the cost of leasing space.

The school also would add approximately 650 seats at the elementary school level, an aid to a school system facing a capacity crunch and a seat deficit — more students than spaces available — of 937 in fiscal 2016.

“It’s needed, and it’s a great opportunity, we think, to save some dollars and close the seating gap,” Lewis said.

But city councilors raised concerns about the process so far, including an ambitious timeline that projects the school would open in September 2018. Lewis said the intention is to coincide the school’s opening with the new boundaries at the elementary level being brought in through the ongoing redistricting process.

City planning staff recently submitted comments and questions to their counterparts in ACPS after they submitted a
second concept design for re- view through the city’s development special use permit process necessary for such projects.

And Crawley said that relatively recently, ACPS staff discovered covenants on the office space that mean the neighboring property owners must agree with a change in use.

City Manager Mark Jinks said he was most concerned about the turnaround time needed to resolve planning staff’s comments. Jinks said cooperation is key to ensuring things stay on track.

“Working together is the only way we’re going to get the most efficient use of the dollar,” he said.

Councilors also questioned the budgetary juggling currently being undertaken by the school board to purchase the property. Crawley said that at its December 1 meeting, the board approved transferring around $4 million from the schools’ operating budget into the capital plan to aid with the purchase, with $23.4 million already in the capital budget for this purpose.

In addition, about $10.5 million has been reallocated within the capital budget from six existing projects, with the replacement of the roofs at George Washington Middle School and Matthew Maury Elementary School; the expansion of the Charles Barrett Elementary School cafeteria; and systemwide fixes to furniture, fixtures and equipment set to be removed from future capital budgets.

Meanwhile, the projects to expand ACPS’ transportation facility and modernize and expand the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams High School will return in future capital budgets, subject to school board discussions on those topics.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg said he wanted to make sure that capital projects are not deferred too often, as that can create a bad precedent.

“People have had concerns with the way capital improvement projects have been man- aged in the past,” he said.

Crawley acknowledged that some projects have been deferred, but that the system is moving into a new era of modernizing and rebuilding schools. Last month,he proposed a $515.7 million capital budget that would renovate three elementary schools, rebuild Minnie Howard and build another West End elementary school.

“We know that is an aggressive agenda, but we are at a place in this community where we need to invest in learning spaces for our students,” Crawley said.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said the procurement process, in which ACPS issued a request for proposals for space available for lease that conform to educational specifications but then found the property was available for purchase, should be examined to find “lessons learned” for the future.

Wilson added that the schools and city should work closer together, something Lewis said he was open to in certain scenarios if there is expertise not already provided by ACPS staff.

City Councilor John Chapman went further, saying that if possible, it would be good to explore the city using the top two floors of the six-story building. Under Virginia Code, only the first four stories can be used to educate students, and Chapman and Wilson agreed that given the city’s constraints on its municipal facilities, there is an opportunity for a joint city-schools space.

“I’d love for us to be able to work with you guys to have that space, however that needs to happen,” Chapman said. “It would be the best way to make this a joint project.”

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