Your View: The coming debacle at Patrick Henry

Your View: The coming debacle at Patrick Henry

By William A. Goff, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
The city recently has begun the process of rebuilding our school infrastructure after years of neglect with a project that is long overdue. The effort begins with Patrick Henry Elementary School, a school that dates back to the 1950s and is currently unfit for educating our youth. The city has budgeted $38.7 million for this project with no firm budget for the accompanying recreation center, although projections between $6.9 and $8.2 million have been tossed around.

Without adequate discussion or public hearing, the school board and the city council have passed the buck and moved this construction project forward, despite the inability of the planning commission and the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities to deliver a viable plan for the recreation center. Dissension and hesitation on the part of the school board and city council have permeated the discussions and we are only in the second inning of this project with 11 more to follow. It is an inauspicious beginning.

The project is defined by two entities: the rebuilding of the school and an accompanying recreation center. Both endeavors are intertwined and will determine the size and location of the buildings on the site. More importantly, the school and recreation center will dictate the ingress and egress from the structures, the parking, traffic patterns and, most importantly, the proximity of the structures to the neighborhood as well as the amount of open space remaining, a priority in the master plan.

This is a major undertaking. The city has never in the past seven years delivered a project of this magnitude on time or on budget. To rush through the preliminary stage based upon Mark Eisenhour and City Councilor Tim Lovain’s belief that a delay of three months would have negative implications for the project is ridiculous and irresponsible. The citizenry has had minimal dialogue with the school board and recreation department and there has been no
formal public hearing. Patrick Henry has been a broken school for the past 10 years; what difference does four, six or 12 months make if it means we can get it right?

The recent election has given you our mandate — any project or alteration to a neighborhood must honor the tranquility with respect to neighbors and result in cost-conscious development. City councilors Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg did their best to bring some reason into this discussion. They got it right.

The best reason not to continue and to move more slowly with the project was demonstrated by Smedberg’s plea to “fire the bunch who worked on this proposal and start over because this proposal process was poor.” The recreation department has always been self-serving and difficult to deal with — they are quick to borrow city fields but reluctant to share their own field space with others. Their modus operandi is to light and rent the fields and recreation centers to third parties to generate revenue for their department.

Changes need to be made in the recreation department for more clarity in what they do. Bravo to these three city councilors who stood their ground despite the pressure from Eisenhour and Lovain to hastily move forward. Where were city councilors Justin Wilson and John Chapman and Mayor Bill Euille on this issue? Gentlemen, haste makes waste.

You the city council and school board have a new mandate from the public to deliver these school projects and any future projects to scale and on budget. These 12 school renovations are huge financial undertakings — totalling close to $2 billion over 20 years — and there is no room for error. For those on council who chose to kick the can down the road, we the citizens will hold you to the new mandate in November and vote accordingly. Do the citizens of Alexandria a favor — take as much time as you need for the school rebuild project so we get it right.