Feeling slighted, neighbors prod school plan

Feeling slighted, neighbors prod school plan

Apologetic school officials took heat from neighbors of the Jefferson-Houston elementary and middle school at the first of several planned public forums on what to do with the aging building. 

Beneath the faded ultraviolet lights and stained ceiling tiles of the school’s auditorium, residents blasted the School Board and Superintendent Morton Sherman for moving too quickly with plans to partner with a developer on a new building. Neighbors in the Parker-Gray neighborhood have agitated against the proposal throughout the summer and didn’t let officials off easy Monday night.

If you sense that there is a lot of heat here, it’s because we neighbors didn’t know what ya’ll were up to and what we saw and heard was a colorful brochure and that was very nice, but it looked as though something had already been decided, said neighbor and music teacher Kathleen Baker. Now you’re on a good path this is a good start but you must understand for those of us that have been without information it’s going to take us a little time.

In June, school and city officials discussed funding new construction by turning a portion of city-owned land over to developers, sparking outcry from nearby residents. On Monday Sherman accepted accusations that officials overstepped their bounds.

We probably jumped too quickly to a conversation about how to pay for that school, he said. If that was a judgment in error on our part, I apologize.

Sherman has said the public-private partnership would allow the school to be built with no cost to taxpayers. Neighbors worry that the plan, which could include developer-owned commercial space, would eat up park space and increase traffic congestion. 

Admissions of regret did little to mollify the nearly 200 people in attendance. Residents Paul Will and Kevin Gray criticized officials for not providing enough information about their ideas ahead of time. Will called the lack of facts unacceptable. Gray labeled the meeting a sales pitch.

You could have been at least straightforward and laid it out on the table. Instead you’re coming to us more so as a political salesman, Gray said. The feeling that I get in this meeting right now is that this is an overall sales pitch to make us feel happy. That is what we’re getting, that this is a bit of a sales pitch. We could have come prepared.

Though school officials maintain they always intended to engage the community, neighbors haven’t been shy about their frustrations. In August, they petitioned City Hall for a public forum to air their grievances, eventually meeting with Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. 

Lee Quill, a parent and architect who volunteered his services, tried to assuage neighbor’s anxieties, but did little to dispel concerns officials were moving ahead without keeping the public up to speed.

We still need to be informed on a fair basis, said resident Dennis Turner. We do have to have some dialogue. We do have to have dialogue because we have a vested interest in this community, for our kids, our community and for Alexandria public schools. I’m getting the feeling decisions are already being made.

What school officials did share with residents, parents and faculty centered around an ambitious plan to rebuild 40-year-old Jefferson-Houston with more green space, windows and classrooms on the existing site. It’s too early to say how much those improvements would cost, but just maintaining the long-struggling school with its present problems requires a $12.7 million investment, Sherman said.

There is a point where you put good money after bad into old, tired buildings, he said. $12.7 million maintains this existing facility for the next 15 to 20 years. It doesn’t improve it, it just sustains a building we believe has already served its time.

A second meeting is planned for October 4.