Despite public praise, ACPS CIP plan not a done deal


The school board’s multimillion dollar capital improvement plan earned mostly praise Thursday, the publics first chance to weigh in on the proposal, but Vice Mayor Kerry Donley believes the 10-year roadmap may be too ambitious.
While the CIP still has a ways to go before ending up before city council, school officials are asking for $384.3 million over the next decade. Alexandria City Public Schools staff also has prepared a slightly more modest $372.6 million resources-constrained model, a sum they believe likelier to meet approval with city officials. 
The decade-long plan calls for building 20 additional classrooms in fiscal year 2012, new schools at the Jefferson-Houston, Cora Kelly and Patrick Henry sites, 56 rooms for T.C. Williams and a fourth new school on an as yet undetermined site, among other projects. 
School officials say the additions and renovations will offset rising enrollment and the costs of maintaining aging buildings. While Donley believes the board has done an exemplary job of outlining the need, the wish list would strain the city’s finances, he said. 
Its a very large increase and probably one that I think were going to have difficulty approving, Donley said. The ability to finance and support that kind of debt it may require we make some difficult choices.
The few residents who spoke at the boards public hearing, mostly affiliated with local PTAs, lauded the plan as is. 
Beth Coast, president of the Jefferson-Houston PTA, thanked the board for prioritizing the K-8 school. Jefferson-Houston became a flashpoint after officials initially floated the idea of using a public-private partnership to pay for a new building. At the behest of neighbors, officials shelved the idea and now plan to fund the $39.3 million building with taxpayer dollars.
[Jefferson-Houston] has been on the backburner for too many years, Coast said. Its nice to see it’s getting the attention it needs. The current facility falls short in providing a first class learning environment we in the city expect for our community A new building will show our students, teachers and families that their learning is valued.
Coast told board members the plan enjoys widespread community support. Every student in the city will benefit from new buildings and better curricula, she said. 
Karen McMannis, president of the PTA Council, told the board time is of the essence to make the proposed improvements to the districts school buildings. She pledged the PTA Councils support for the CIP.
We believe this investment is vital to the success of our students and school system, she said. In a matter of years the middle and high schools are going to face the pressures of facing our rapidly growing elementary school population. These students are here now and are coming through the system and deserve the very best education we can provide.
The sole critique of the CIP came from resident and running enthusiast Gary Carr, known locally for his longstanding push for public tracks. He called the lack of information surrounding a proposed new school disingenuous. 
Carr also criticized officials for potentially subjecting a generation of students to learning in a construction zone. Instead, he advocated for building a new school complete with a track in Potomac Yard before renovations on other buildings begin. 
Students in buildings slated for renovation or rebuilding could then attend class in the new school, he said.
[The CIP] condemns a large part of our students to attending schools in construction zones, which has an insidious effect on learning, not to mention exercise, Carr said. Many of the class of 2010 saw construction during their entire school experiences, so we’re about to inflict this on our students again.
Once the school board approves the CIP, the superintendent will hand off the plan to city council, which will likely take up the issue in February.