City council endorses Alexandria schools long range facilities plan

City council endorses Alexandria schools long range facilities plan
(Courtesy photo)

By Chris Teale (File photo)

It has been two and a half years in the making, but a joint city council-Alexandria City Public Schools framework to cope with rapid student enrollment growth is now in place after endorsements last month from both the school board and city council.

The ACPS Long Range Facilities Plan was formulated by a work group that included members of city council, the school board, as well as representatives of local PTAs, The Campagna Center and the community, as well as city staff from a variety of departments.

It anticipates that enrollment will grow steadily from the 2014-2015 figure of around 14,000 students to 17,419 by the 2024-2025 academic year, and lays out a number of options the system can use to cope with increases at the elementary level. It proposes building a new elementary school on the West End and a new middle school in another location in the city while also renovating existing sites. It also recommends allowing Cora Kelly and Jefferson-
Houston to absorb overages of students from Matthew Maury and Mount Vernon elementary schools.

One of the major recommendations is a complete renovation and/or replacement of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School on Janneys Lane to alleviate what the report describes as “failing infrastructure and capacity issues.” It proposes a new or renovated building to accommodate 850 students for a projected cost of $37 million, but does not say whether it would then become a pre-K-8 school, as is proposed for the Patrick Henry Elementary School project, which was approved last month.

The report mentions that there currently are only two small sites set aside for new schools in Alexandria: one in North Potomac Yard and another near Simpson Stadium Park. While the plan does not call for either site to be utilized for a new school, it does recommend a number of other options. On the West End, it proposes reserving space through the Eisenhower West Small Area Plan and considering use of a vacant site near Francis C. Hammond Middle School, and says that officials should consider retrofitting existing commercial buildings for use as a school.

The lack of space in the city for a new school is something that troubled members of the work group, but they believe it can be worked around by using some creative thinking.

“A new site for a new building from scratch, that’s a tough thing to figure out,” said school board member Justin Keating, a member of the work group. “There’s not a whole lot of real estate in the city that’s available. I don’t want to say I’m optimistic about it.

“They’re doing the new Eisenhower West Small Area Plan, and they are trying to figure out a space for a small school over there. I think policy-makers are paying attention at the city, they’re paying more attention now than they were 10 years ago in thinking about this.”

“We’re going to have to think creatively going forward, we’re going to have to look at multi-use sites, we’re going to have to look at potentially shared municipal services where we do a couple of different things there, we’re going to look at partnerships with the private sector and development that comes forward and maybe building non-traditional schools where we’re building schools that are not where people would think of as being a school,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson, another member of the group. “We’re going to have to look at urban schools and all kinds of different models.

“The first thing to note is that we’re not the first to do this — you’ve got to look around the country and look at ways we can make this happen. We’ve got a steep challenge ahead of us, and I think we’ll rise to the occasion and, quite honestly, we don’t have a choice.”

Another challenge will be finding funding for the proposals; the plan recommends some kind of reconfiguration, renovation or expansion at every elementary and middle school in the city between 2018 and 2040 except Patrick Henry, which was excluded due to the execution of a separate feasibility study about its future, and Jefferson-Houston, which reopened in September 2014.

The plan outlines a funding mechanism that would pay for new improvement projects in mostly five-year increments, with the first set to begin in 2018 with either renovating or rebuilding Douglas MacArthur, building a new middle school and reconfiguring Cora Kelly Elementary School. That first set of projects as proposed would cost $130.2 million before interest, which is estimated at a rate of 2.5 percent, a figure slightly under the $131.9 million
budgeted in ACPS’ 10-year capital improvement plan.

To fund all of the projects, which the report estimates would cost upwards of $496.5 million, it suggests a number of methods to find and appropriate funds. It suggests four options: constrained use of bonds and cash capital; the city raising its self-imposed debt limit; funding improvements with cash; and utilizing public-private partnerships to raise money, as was done successfully in the fiscal 2016 budget by the Maury Schoolyard Initiative as they partnered with the city to pay for improvements at Matthew Maury Elementary School.

The report does not reach a conclusion on which funding model would be best for all the projects it outlines, and only recommends that city and ACPS staff work together on a comprehensive long term financial plan.

One aspect of the growth of enrollment not addressed in the plan is the need for increased capacity at the high school level. It recommends further analysis on the need to address the capacity issues at T.C. Williams’ main campus and its satellite Minnie Howard site, and members of the work group say it is something they will need to deal with soon.

“First of all, the way we did it is that we addressed the most dire needs first,” Wilson said. “When we started this process two and a half years ago, we had a serious elementary school challenge around the city. High school and secondary schools weren’t such an issue.

“What has developed over the last two and a half years is we still have a serious elementary problem, but we’ve also developed an emerging high school and secondary school problem. That’s the result of our success, which is great. One of the things that changed in our enrollment methodology was in the past we lost kids starting ninth grade or starting middle school, and that’s changing.”

“[High school capacity] is a major looming problem for us,” Keating said. “We knew going into it that the report wasn’t really going to address that. There’s been different ideas thrown around. One is that eventually when we do get the Minnie Howard expansion done is that we can keep all the ninth graders there all the time, then have all the 10th graders there and have the King Street campus for 11th and 12th graders.

“There’s even been talk of adding more to our middle schools, middle school could be reconfigured so instead of six, seven, eight, it could be seven and eight and you end up with a building somewhere else. Those kind of ideas are being thrown around. I don’t know anybody who’s seriously talking about building another high school, a second high school. That’s not something that’s going to happen as I see it.”

In spite of the challenges still ahead, Wilson believes the partnerships fostered by putting together the long-range plan across numerous members of the community will stand them in good stead for the future.

“One of the things that was neat was we had the traditional school people, we had the traditional city people,” he said. “But we also got a bunch of folks who are in the community and had no affiliation with the schools. We had demographers, we had all kinds of different people. We had a landscape architect, who could help with design of the buildings and things like that.

“It made it a really neat group. I think going forward we’re going to look at a new composition for the high school and secondary group because there’s additional work and additional skills we’re going to want to get involved.”