Editorial: Schoolyard funding raises concerns

Editorial: Schoolyard funding raises concerns

(File photo)

Alexandria City Public Schools had a rough year in 2011. The central office was mired in scandal: the department overseeing capital projects for the district made unauthorized fund transfers between projects and it was found the office lacked internal oversight.

The incident spurred the ouster of high-ranking officials, calls for then-Superintendent Morton Sherman’s resignation and, eventually, a complete overhaul of the department.

The scandal continued to reverberate within the district until 2013, when school leaders were called before city council to explain a number of proposed changes to the system’s capital budget.

“We’re just now fully staffed in the department, following the [capital improvement projects] incident a few years back,” said school board chairwoman Karen Graf at the time. “We’re now exercising proper oversight … but it takes time to rebuild a department.”

So we were surprised last week when a majority of school board members agreed to include $500,000 for the renovation of the schoolyard at Matthew Maury Elementary School, a project that several members admitted they had not seen any staff presentation on or analysis of.

Superintendent Alvin Crawley had proposed allocating funds to similar renovations at other schools — $115,000 each — but included an extra $285,000 for the Maury project.

Since the school board has not seen an official presentation on the project outside from a study privately commissioned by parents at the school, one would expect members to scrutinize the project. But instead, board member Justin Keating proposed throwing even more money at the estimated $1.4 million proposal, to the tune of $100,000.

The Maury schoolyard certainly needs a revamp. As parents said when they lobbied the school board in December, drainage is a constant problem, and grass barely stands a chance of growing. And their funding mechanism — using some public funds to leverage donations from the private sector — could prove an innovative way to pay for infrastructure in a time of dwindling tax revenue.

But allocating money without any in-house analysis, and stifling debate as board member Kelly Booz did when she cut off vice chairman Chris Lewis, is shortsighted at best and could serve as a dangerous precedent.

What will happen if the privately commissioned proposal doesn’t pass muster with city officials? What if the project ends up costing more than the parents and their experts anticipated?

Will the boosters have to come up with the difference? Or will it be the school board, pot committed after this initial investment? And what needed upgrade to another school will bear the brunt of that decision?

With the aforementioned oversight scandal and the handwringing that occurred as plans for the newly finished Jefferson-Houston School came in over budget still fresh in the minds of many residents, now is a time to provide more scrutiny to capital projects, not less.