Lessons from Jefferson-Houston

Lessons from Jefferson-Houston
File Photo

We were pleased to see the city council approve plans for a new Jefferson-Houston School on Saturday. Yes, not everyone agrees with the specifics of the project. But school and city officials’ efforts to engage the public throughout the planning stages were applauded by even the project’s most strident opponents.

Given the city’s poor reputation for getting residents on board with major proposals, it’s important to examine what went right with Jefferson-Houston.

To start, officials clearly defined the need. The decades-old school was built based on an educational model now out of fashion and would have cost Alexandria City Public Schools — not to mention taxpayers — dearly in maintenance costs in the coming years. With enrollment ballooning, a larger building with room for hundreds more students will help offset the districtwide classroom crunch.

And officials resisted the urge to sweeten the deal by promising a new school would instantly solve Jefferson-Houston’s well-publicized academic woes. Yes, state-of-the-art classrooms will help, but the building doesn’t take the Standards of Learning tests.

Early talks about the future of the school revolved around stakeholders. What did parents, neighbors and educators want to see in a new Jefferson-Houston? What did they want to avoid?

ACPS officials subsequently held a seemingly endless series of meetings with residents and employed instant polling data to ensure all voices were heard — not just the loudest. Participants could see exactly what their neighbors liked and disliked about the project, and officials could respond and adjust plans as needed.

Committees were established to shepherd the project to completion, and ACPS created a website about the project’s details, ensuring all residents had a chance to see what was on the table.

How successful was this effort? Neighbor Dino Drudi, who remains a critic of the project, endorsed ACPS’ outreach strategy in a letter to the editor early last month.

“Although those of us who live near the site packed the two board of architectural review hearings where the project was considered, the public-involvement process worked well enough that most of us feel we have to accede to the design because we understand everyone else likes it,” he wrote.

“Though I have consistently opposed what came out of the public-involvement process, I cannot strongly enough endorse [it] and believe city government needs to utilize it more widely on a range of controversial topics, perhaps even the waterfront plan.”

Contrast that with the efforts to pass the Beauregard and waterfront redevelopment plans, which have left residents feeling alienated and city officials spending taxpayer dollars on legal fees.

Mr. Drudi’s suggestion is the right one: City Hall must embrace this model going forward.