Officials nix Public-private Jefferson-Houston school

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School officials say paying for a new Jefferson-Houston school through a public-private partnership is off the table for now.

On the heels of the latest community meeting regarding the aging building, School Board Chairman Yvonne Folkerts said officials want to establish the need for a new school before discussing payment options. 

We want the community to focus on the needs for a new school versus how were going to pay for it, she said Wednesday. It is an interesting concept. Obviously, we still have a lot of questions, but we’re taking it off the table because we dont want it to be a focus right now.

The board likely will add the project to the district’s capital improvement plan sometime in December. From there, city and school officials will weigh the money available and decide on a payment strategy, Folkerts said. 

Neighbors of the community school remain wary. School officials took flack from nearby residents throughout summer after floating the public-private option during a work session with the city council in June. 

Citing increased density, traffic and a loss of green space, residents worry trading city-owned land for reconstruction money will destroy the historic neighborhood. Superintendent Morton Sherman attempted to tear up the public-private documents during the districts first community meeting in September, symbolizing Alexandria City Public Schools commitment to restarting dialogue with the community. 

Apologies and symbols are nice, but residents aren’t convinced a deal with developers isn’t in the cards, said neighbor Damon Colbert.

Were listening to them and taking a wait and see approach, Colbert said. I appreciate the fact they acknowledge that their initial approach was not the right approach. We are listening when they say the public-private partnership is off the table, but that remains to be seen.

Colbert led efforts for community forums after the public-private plan stirred up the Jefferson-Houston neighborhood, though officials say they planned to hold public meetings as soon as the school year began. 

After two meetings, Colbert wants to get down to the facts and figures. A meeting Monday was heavy on talk and short on hard numbers, he said. 

Colbert says focusing on immaterial concerns, like the schools curriculum and the role of public education in Alexandria, may sour some of his neighbors on the process.

We are happy to be at the table, we’re happy to have these meetings, but wed like to start discussing the more material issues, because this is a time consuming effort, he said. Now Im starting to hear my neighbors say, ‘What was the point?’

Still, school officials want to reiterate theyve hit the reset button. Everyone needs to be on the same page before the district moves too far ahead again, Folkerts said. She expects rough schematics for a new school will be available at the next meeting on October 25.

My understanding of that community, that part of Alexandria, they are very active and very in tune with the needs for that part of town, Folkerts said. We need to respect that.

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