Our View: New schools are needed, but at what cost?

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(File photo)

We cautiously laud city council’s decision to approve the redevelopment of the Patrick Henry Elementary School and Recreation Center at its public hearing last weekend.

Several factors drive the applause. The project has been discussed for years while the current school has continued to deteriorate and enrollment in Alexandria City Public Schools has kept rising. The new school will morph into a pre-K-8 facility, and will serve 200 more students than its predecessor.

In addition, the A-1 design ultimately approved by both the school board and council does seem to be the best option. There were definitely glitches in the process, and some members of the advisory group that put long hours into research on this project rightly feel miffed that their recommendation of the C-1 option was rejected.

The advisory process should be reexamined to ensure residents’ time is not being wasted. But we have no problem with this outcome, as several factors in the C-1 option — including having students access the school through the recreation center — seemed untenable. It is ultimately the responsibility of our elected officials to make the final call between competing proposals.

Speaking of tough calls, the looming capital budget crunch that council must navigate is the reason for our caution. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in considering this present project, council is haunted by projects past and the specter of crushing future spending needs.

A tour of past projects reveals a grim reality: few public building endeavors in Alexandria come in anywhere near their budgeted amount. Most egregious was the Charles Houston Recreation Center project. Initially budgeted as a $4 million rebuild, the final price tag was more than $15 million when the center opened in early 2009.

More recent, and more relevant, is the newest rebuilt city school: Jefferson- Houston. The school was projected to cost $36 million, yet the final price tag was $44.2 million, meaning this project came in 23 percent over budget.

Unfortunately, this is not just one or two projects — it seems to be the city’s modus operandi on capital projects and it is why we are so concerned. The budgeted cost of the new Patrick Henry School and recreation center is $42.5 million, plus another $2.2 million for the turf field, hard court and playgrounds for a total of $44.7 million. But if this project also comes in 23 percent over budget, then we are talking about a $55 million complex.

When viewed through the prism of the overall schools 10-year capital budget, which just leaped from an already staggering $515.5 million to more than $611 million seemingly with a wave of the hand, the specter of 23 percent over- runs across the board is haunting indeed.

At that rate, we would be talking about $751.65 million in capital spending on schools, or almost 50 percent more than Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s $515.5 million request.

These numbers are truly mind-boggling. This isn’t Monopoly money we’re talking about — it’s dollars that will come from the pockets of residents and businesses large and small.

And of course, capital outlays on schools pale in comparison with needed spending on sewer system upgrades, the Potomac Yard Metro station — and increased Metro budget contributions — and repairs to city buildings. Several things seem clear to us:

• These projects can’t be tackled all at once, or even all in a 10-year period.

• City council needs to not just figure out how to stagger these proposals, but with the schools budget in particular it needs to make difficult decisions about what’s truly necessary and what’s simply preferable. In particular, we
question the third middle school proposal at this time.

• The city needs to improve dramatically at bringing capital projects in on budget. Whether this is a process, personnel or some other issue, City Manager Mark Jinks and his staff need to figure out how to better manage these projects. Alexandria is at a critical juncture. Years of deferred capital improvements and surging school enrollment has left us with daunting yet urgent infrastructure needs — and we can’t afford them all.

As with Scrooge, the actions our leaders take now will determine our future.

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