Filling in the blanks: The role of swing space in ACPS’ capital budget

Filling in the blanks: The role of swing space in ACPS’ capital budget
School board chairwoman Karen Graf

By Karen Graf

Is the Alexandria City School Board’s capital budget request realistic? Well, the needs of the school division are real. As a community, we need to figure out how to address the realities of a huge capital budget proposal for the benefit of our city’s school district.

The total the capital budget for fiscal 2018-2027 is proposed at $611.1 million, including $89.7 million in fiscal 2018 alone. Alexandria City Public Schools has the opportunity to address the capacity needs across K-12 schools
and kick off modernization plans in FY 2018. But to start modernization, the district needs swing space. And this is where things get complicated.

Swing space allows a school, like MacArthur or George Mason elementary schools, to move to another location while the school site is developed. Unlike Jefferson-Houston or Patrick Henry, many school sites are not large enough to build a new school while keeping all the students safely on site. For several years, the school board has been planning the swing space concept.

This year, we cannot delay the build out of swing space or the whole capital budget will be delayed yet another year. This year, we discussed three options — I am calling them the Three Bear options.

The Baby Bear option involves working with the city to analyze the Lee Center in order to co-locate city programs and school swing space. The school board had made multiple requests to the city for this analysis over the past 18 months, even making a formal request this last September.

Schools Superintendent Alvin L. Crawley had proposed that the Lee Center — a former ACPS school in Old Town that was returned to the city in the 1970s at a time when ACPS was seeing falling enrollment — be used as swing space at a much lower cost to taxpayers of $9 million. But at the time the CIP was approved, the city could not commit to allowing access to the Lee Center.

The Mother Bear option would be to design an existing business building, like ACPS is doing on the West End, to act as a swing space. But there are not many options that provide the space needs the district requires. For example, MacArthur would need to find a space that can accommodate 750 students while its building is demolished and rebuilt.

ACPS also would need to seek funding to purchase, as it is not fiscally sound for the taxpayers to lease space, a lesson learned through the acquisition of the West End property. This option would cost the taxpayers around $35 million.

In the end, the school board was compelled to ask for the Papa Bear option: fund the purchase of land and construction of a new building to accommodate staff and students during the modernization program of other school buildings. The total cost to purchase and build the facility would be in the region of $55.4 million.

The school board hopes that by the close of the city budget process, the analysis for the Lee Center will lead to a less expensive option. But without that analysis, the alternative options for swing space are very expensive and put our future projects at risk.

We are willing to admit that this is not ideal, but the school board is tasked with expressing our needs to city council. Together, I am optimistic that we can find a responsible fiscal solution — sweet, little Baby Bear — to support the success of all of our students and one that will not burden the taxpayers.

The writer is the chairwoman of the Alexandria City School Board.