School board wrestles with capital budget plan

School board wrestles with capital budget plan

By Chris Teale (File photo)

City Manager Mark Jinks may not submit his city budget proposal until next month, but the fiscal planning season already has kicked into high gear for the Alexandria City School Board, as it works on its 10-year capital improvement plan for the 2017-2026 fiscal years.

But the ongoing redistricting process and the need to synchronize timelines complicates this year’s discussions.

Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley presented his proposal for the capital budget last month, and with Alexandria City Public Schools’ enrollment issues weighing heavily on board members’ minds, work sessions on the proposal were split into capacity and non-capacity needs. ACPS projects enrollment will continue to grow at an average of 3.6 percent annually over five years, and plateau in approximately 2030.

The first work session on Crawley’s proposal came on November 16, with capacity projects the main topic of discussion as members looked at potential projects and how they relate to the district’s long-range facilities plan, formally adopted in July.

But many board members expressed unease at the introduction of a new elementary school on the West End and its impact on the redistricting process. Crawley’s proposal would retrofit existing office space for school use in time for the 2017-2018 school year to ease crowding and reduce displacement of some students who would normally attend Samuel Tucker Elementary School.

“This [redistricting process] seems like a lot of work that a year later is going to be thrown into disarray,” said board member Justin Keating, noting that a new school would change how redistricting works at the elementary level.

Board member Pat Hennig agreed, and expressed concerns about the level of development coming to the area in the next few years and the expected influx of even more students.

“I don’t think we’ve had any consideration of what’s coming, what city council has approved coming online in the next six to seven months, which is basically going to screw this up like no tomorrow,” she said, noting the approval of 278 new residential units without “sewers, schools, streets and electricity.”

In response, Crawley said the main priority was ensuring there is enough space for elementary-level students on the West End, but that still did not sit well with board members who raised concerns about the impact on Alexandria’s two middle schools.

There is no plan to add an additional middle school to the current two — George Washington and Francis C. Hammond — and the officials project middle school enrollment to increase by 500 students over the next 10 years.

“The fact that we’re not doing anything with our middle schools, that’s a concern that I have now,” said board member Bill Campbell. “I think most people feel that we’re about at the max of where we want to be now with those schools. To look at this plan and not really have a plan right now to either go with another middle school, it’s a concern that I have.”

“If we’re going to add something a year later with 700 kids, I hesitate to ignore our middle school capacity when we have an opportunity to talk to 35 people in the community about something larger,” said board chairwoman Karen Graf. “I feel like this is almost there, but some of the timing on the projects seem out of line with what we’re asking our community to go through.”

The proposal to add 10 new classrooms, gymnasium and office space and an expanded cafeteria to the T.C. Williams High School Minnie Howard campus received broad support from board members, although Graf again raised the question of how the ongoing redistricting process would affect plans and whether more creative thinking was required, like using the campus for more than just ninth grade.

“There’s so many different things we could be looking at, and do we want to put our community into a situation where we would be redistricting now and then having these questions emerge a year to two years later,” she said.

Another proposal in the capital budget includes the expansion of pre-K services throughout the city, something Graf said she was “thrilled” with, especially as it would look to make use of partnerships with various groups throughout the city.

After several redistricting meetings, it was announced on November 23 that redistricting would be extended to late spring, a change from the prior timeline that had the school board voting on a recommendation in February. Officials said the decision was made to better fit with the city’s budget process, and “to ensure that the process of altering boundaries is implicitly tied to other criteria including high academic performance,” according to a statement from ACPS.

The budget process will continue on December 14 as the school board carries out an add/delete session for the CIP budget, which is slated for adoption three days later. And in May, the board will hold another public hearing followed by another work session before it adopts the final budget based on city council’s allocation to ACPS.