By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Alexandria City School Board members wrestled their way through first of several FY 2016 budget work sessions last week at George Washington Middle School. In preparation for a vote on the fiscal 2016 capital budget Thursday, and at times divided over the process, they came closer to completing the school system’s $292.8 million ten-year infrastructure plan.
What had been a harmonious atmosphere shifted late in the nearly five-hour meeting when Board Member Justin Keating proposed taking $100,000 from the $7 million budgeted for a new middle school to supplement the Maury Schoolyard Initiative, a proposal to renovate the elementary school’s play field.
During public comments, playground advocate John Buscher thanked the board for $115,000 allocated for Maury, Mount Vernon and William Ramsay elementary schools each for exterior playgrounds or sports areas. He was also grateful for an additional $285,000 Crawley specifically designated to help fund the schoolyard initiative.
Buscher asked the board to approve another $100,000 to enable his group to the complete the project in one year instead of two. The Maury Schoolyard Initiative raised $200,000 on their own, sought public/private partnerships, and have lobbied the school board and city hard to gain support for their $1.4 million privately commissioned design.
Board member William Campbell said despite his first impressions of the project, funding the Maury renovation is a win-win for the board.
“When I first heard about it, my first thought was a bunch of middle- and high-income white folks getting together a lot of money and trying to jump the line,” he said. “Right? That’s where I was. … But, as I learned more about the project, talked to more and more people, there wasn’t a line to jump.
“Maybe we need to establish one. … My kids are looking forward to playing on the $1 million-plus playground at Jefferson Houston. … There are no losers.”
But board member Marc Williams said the proposal skirts the typical process for approving infrastructure projects.
“I support quality playgrounds and play spaces across the division,” he said. “We have not had one board meeting [to discuss this]. The superintendent has not made one presentation about the Maury playground or the Mount Vernon playground. So, we are told as a board we need $500,000, [but] I don’t know for what.”
Williams went on to say the board needed to pay attention to equity.
“The quality of your play space shouldn’t be determined by your zip code,” he said. “If the superintendent has not presented, and we have not discussed, then I think this is nothing more than an earmark. … And, if you can round up five votes, you can do it. But I don’t want to do business this way.”
The board tentatively voted 5-4 in favor of the additional money for Maury. Joining Williams in dissent were Chris Lewis, Ronnie Campbell and Patricia Hennig.
“This is a horrible process,” Lewis said.
“We need to fully informed before we make financial decisions,” Ronnie Campbell said. “The board deserves to have this kind of information and it should be coming from our staff and our superintendent.”
Hennig went even further than her colleagues, saying the city needed to take responsibility for neighboring Beach Park, whose storm water runoff is responsible for the problems at Maury.
But board member Kelly Booz defended the decision, saying parents have been working with city staff on the proposal.
“The Maury Schoolyard Initiative has spent a lot of time working with our staff and also with city council and have been doing a lot of the work that our facilities department may do,” she said. “And, they’re doing that to some degree on our behalf to make this happen. I fully support moving this forward. … So, if there are five members, I think we should be moving forward with this process with the schoolyard.”
Keating lauded the Maury proposal as an innovative way to secure private funds for public projects.
“[It] sets the standard for a public/private partnership that we’d be shortsighted to turn our back on at this point,” he said. “[In] terms of process, there are lots of things we haven’t seen [before voting on them].”
But Williams said it’s impossible to judge a project’s worthiness without a review by city staff.
“How would we know they’re ready to go because we have not seen a specific proposal from our staff?” he said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t agree that, Mr. Keating. Your description of the Maury playground or a schematic at a board meeting is a process. … It could be the worthiest project, and I’m sure that it is, but I don’t think that’s the way we, as a board, should operate.”
And Lewis complained that the board had only received the proposal this week.
“There’s money in here from the superintendent,” he said. “The proposal right now is to go above and beyond that. Do you guys have an explanation on how you got to that number? And, maybe board members can talk about why they want to go above that? Is that fair to ask a question of the staff?”
“I don’t know,” said chairwoman Karen Graf.
“Just for process for tonight … if we have five members who agree to this add/delete [item], do we move on?” Booz asked quickly.
“[Keating’s proposal] was a budget neutral [one] and we need five, and I’m the fifth,” Graf said.
Earlier in the evening, in his report to the board, Superintendent Alvin Crawley emphasized the need to increase capacity and modernize the district’s aging facilities.
The board unanimously approved $38 million for fiscal 2016 for the expansion of Patrick Henry Elementary to a pre-K through eighth grade program and 20 additional classrooms. The expansion will provide relief to overcrowding at Francis Hammond Middle School.
The board also was unified in bringing $3.6 million originally slated for fiscal 2017 into the next budget year for the planned expansion of T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard campus to address urgent capacity needs. Those plans include 20 additional classrooms, as well as an enlarged cafeteria and a new administrative area.
Board members agreed to increase the budget from $50 million to $74.4 million for a new 48-classroom middle school that could be located in the Eisenhower-west neighborhood. The project was moved forward from fiscal 2019-2021 to the 2016-2019 fiscal years because of projected enrollment increases.
With $33.6 million set aside for modernization, Douglas MacArthur Elementary School’s improvements were moved up from FY 2019 to 2017 due to the building’s poor condition. Maury Elementary’s modernization plans were pushed back until 2023 while other elementary schools were shelved beyond the 10-year plan. Improvements for George Mason Elementary School were cut by $5.1 million to a new total of $15.9 million and moved back from FY 2017 to 2021.
The board was slated to meet Tuesday after press time to continue its work on the budget.