By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)
Ariya Harrington has trouble focusing in leaky classrooms. The 8-year-old student at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School also says that her classes are overcrowded and that the heating and air conditioning system is perpetually out of whack.
“Every once in a while a leak springs,” she said. “It’s distracting if water is dripping on you while you’re doing work, if you know what I mean.”
Harrington’s comments, along with those of 60 other residents, were heard by city councilors in a four hour public hearing on the city’s proposed budget Monday. Their recommendations on City Manager Mark Jinks’ $712.5 million budget proposal ranged from approving the budget as is to fully funding the request of Alexandria City Public Schools, supporting the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection project on the West End and increasing the salaries of city employees.
Mayor Allison Silberberg called the meeting “civic engagement at its best,” and recognized that the schools are in “serious need of our attention.”
“We have some hard choices to make. Everyone realizes that now. We’ve been very up front and it is complicated,” Silberberg said. “We don’t want mold in our schools. It’s unacceptable that there was a rat [in a classroom], as someone testified. … [Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley] and his staff — the facilities manager — they are responsible for maintaining the school buildings.”
Abigail Riley is a sixth grader at George Washington Middle School, which has a capacity of 1,150 students but has 1,333 students enrolled.
“My grade has 420 students. It’s the biggest that GW has seen, and the grades just keep getting on bigger,” Riley said. “My school does a German exchange program. As part of the exchange, the students from Germany come to our school and get to go to their host’s classes. Imagine their surprise when they come to our nation’s capital and see overcrowded schools and inadequate facilities.”
Students, parents and teachers from across the city told council about overcrowded and deteriorating school conditions.
The city manager’s proposal calls for a 3.6 percent increase in schools spending on the operating side over last year for a total of $214.1 million. The schools transfer would account for 30 percent of city spending. Jinks called the allocation a “well-deserved” increase, but said anything further would be too big a burden on Alexandria taxpayers.
“If it’s a school facility, the school is responsible. Some of what they are talking about is building maintenance and not capital investment,” Jinks said. “We are basically dealing with, in our lifetime, an unprecedented growth in our school population at the same time that schools going back to the 1930s [need replacement]. … To fund that in the 10-year period, you’d have to add 5 to 8 cents to the real estate tax rate above the 2.7 cents I’ve recommended.”
But after the budget proposal’s release last month, ACPS released a statement standing firm in its financial request.
“There is no doubt that if this budget is passed without changes, it will directly impact schools in a negative way, both in terms of elementary school capacity project and modernization of our aging facilities, and in terms of supporting teachers and students in the classroom,” the statement said.
Timmy Barnett, a seventh grader at George Washington Middle School, said his classroom smelled of mold at the beginning of the school year.
“My teacher has a leak in her ceiling that has not been repaired. They just swap out the ceiling tile for a fresh one when it gets moldy,” he said. “We work really hard and deserve a good learning environment.”
Francis C. Hammond Middle School seventh grader Will Jones said his school is crowded and has an air conditioning problem.
“While I am in science, language arts, math and computer solutions, which are on the first floor, you can’t concentrate because it is just too warm,” he said. “My Spanish class is just the opposite. Last Thursday, when it was warm, it was 50 degrees in the classroom.”
Allison Riley is president of the George Mason Elementary School parent teacher association.
“We are a system now in crisis,” she said. “The foundation at George Mason Elementary School crumbles in your hands, there is a leak behind the building’s main electrical panel that has been fixed multiple times and yet somehow keeps leaking. We need full funding.”
But resident Jack Sullivan said a fully funded school system would impact the pockets of retirees.
“Right now the average homeowner can expect a $400 increase in taxes and fees in 2018 with the manager’s budget,” Sullivan said. “If school officials have their way and pressure you to fund this additional amount, it could double that burden to as much as $800.”
Rev. Jo Belser, rector at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, asked council to move $4.3 million so that the church’s gift of 113 units of affordable housing for families can be realized in the 2018 low-income housing tax credit cycle. She said the funding would leverage the total project value of roughly $43 million, and add about $200,000 to the city tax rolls.
“We feel ‘called’ — a church word meaning this wasn’t our idea — to give our community some of the affordable housing it so desperately needs,” she said. “So, what our church will gain from this project is just enough resources from a 65-year-old lease of the property for the housing to build a smaller church.”
Thomas Knighton works for the public works services division of the city department of transportation and environmental services, which is responsible for maintaining the city’s streets, sidewalks, sewers, fire hydrants and storm drains. He said he and his fellow employees have been left in the cold.
“The police and fire departments would have a very difficult time doing their jobs if not for the public works services,” Knighton said. “We are the backbone of the city that keeps it possible for everyone to get around quickly and safely.”
Debra Defreitas, vice president of the Alexandria Governmental Employee Association, cautioned against making changes to the city employee supplemental retirement plan.
“At the end of the day, I do not believe that the city wants to implement changes to the retirement system that harm those employees who have personally provided over a quarter century of dedicated service to its citizens,” she said.
City council will hold its next budget work session March 21 at City Hall.