By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
The planned West End elementary school at 1701 and 1705 N. Beauregard St. passed its biggest hurdle at a public hearing on Saturday when city council unanimously approved its development special use permit.
The approval means construction can begin on transforming the vacant office building into a school that will eventually accommodate 650 students between kindergarten and fifth grade. It will be the first new school facility for Alexandria City Public Schools since Samuel Tucker Elementary School opened in 1999.
The school plan did, however, face prominent opposition from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which specializes in professional development for teachers. ASCD has maintained its headquarters at 1703 N. Beauregard St., an office building that faces the new West End school, since 1998.
Though the association didn’t oppose the school itself, it requested a number of alterations to ACPS’ plans, including the installation of a berm or a barrier in the courtyard the new school and association share. They also requested rerouting drop off of students from the front of the building to a side access road, and installation of a gate in the parking garage that would separate their 190 parking spaces from those for school faculty and parents.
Richard Newman, lawyer for ASCD, represented the organization at Saturday’s public hearing.
“ASCD wants to be a good neighbor and seeks conditions to assure good neighborly relations,” Newman said at the meeting. “We’ve sought conditions at the planning commission, we’ve sought conditions with the school board and we continue to seek clarification.”
In addition to the other requests, Newman asked city council to insert language that would obligate the school district to add “no parking” and “no standing” signage around the building’s perimeter. Newman asked that the city pay for all of the improvements.
“We are looking for a way we can co-locate with a minimum of friction,” Newman said.
Newman also said the school district hasn’t responded to ASCD’s requests for meetings to discuss these prospective changes.
“We simply haven’t made any progress,” Newman said. “This is very loose language that needs to be tightened. Our phone calls haven’t been returned.”
Interim Superintendent Lois Berlin denied this claim.
“With all due respect to Mr. Newman, that’s not quite accurate,” Berlin said. “We’ve had phone conversations and we’re in the process of arranging meetings.”
During the council session Berlin said that, typically, these additions are negotiated in the site plan process.
City council elected to not obligate the school district to install a berm, parking garage gate
or to reroute the drop off and pickup route at this time.During an interview ahead of the public hearing, Berlin said the school district and ASCD were in the midst of conversations about how to move forward.
“I think it’s understandable when a totally different use moves in, there needs to be discussion and there needs to be negotiation so that we can be good neighbors to each other,” Berlin said. “That’s where we are.” Berlin said there’s a great potential for the school district and ASCD to work together and collaborate on projects, such as professional development for teachers and faculty.
She also said ASCD has legitimate concerns, including parking. Berlin said she is open to working out those issues together.
“We’re absolutely looking forward to having an amicable relationship. We have plans to work things out in regards to managing parking. I think that’s one of the largest issues we need to work on together,” Berlin said.
For observers, infighting between a organization that provides education services and the school district might seem ironic. However, Berlin said the type of organization involved is irrelevant.
“I don’t think the type of organization matters. I think what’s key here is it’s an organization that’s been in an office park. The use of the park is changing,” Berlin said. “That’s why we’re working with them.”
For many parents with children attending district schools, any delay in building the new school is unacceptable. Elementary schools on the West End are already bursting at the seams, they say, with most schools contending with more than 120 percent of capacity.
John Adams Elementary School on Rayburn Avenue is several points higher at 137 percent of capacity.
“Space is needed and it’s needed now,” Amanda Kelly, a former PTA president at John Adams, said at the public hearing. “We have little to no land and we’re running out of time to build a new building. We have an option that will be both cost-effective and a relief to schools.”
Mark Huddle, an ACPS parent, said not completing the West End school could also have a ricochet effect for redistricting, which will create new school boundaries in order to alleviate some of the strains of the school district’s rapid population growth.
“The new West End school is a lynchpin for ACPS redistricting,” Huddle said. “Without it, we can’t implement the rest of it. ACPS can’t delay on this. They need to have good administrators and good teachers. We need to get started and get it done ASAP.” Janese Bechtol, treasurer of the PTA Council, said she thought the two parties could easily work out their differences.
“ASCD has had the luxury of not having neighbors, so there’s going to be some adjustment,” Bechtol said. “I’m sure we can work it out. I looked at [ASCD’s] website and it says they are looking to help kids of all cultures, creeds and classes – that is this school. It will be a good match, so work out the differences.”
Cameron Brenchley, director of communications for the association, said the organization was sympathetic to the issue of overcrowding, both as advocates for education and as ACPS parents themselves.
“We know what it’s like on the other side,” Brenchley said.
Brenchley said the process of negotiating conditions for the West End school has gone on for about a year at this point. The communication, he said, has been on-and-off and the conversation lapsed when former Superintendent Alvin Crawley left his post at the end of July and some conversations had to begin again as Berlin started as superintendent.
“I would say it’s taken longer than expected for both sides to come to an agreement,” Brenchley said.
He reiterated that the organization, which employs 145 people, is in favor of the school, and hopes to see details worked out.
“We’re going to keep working with them to iron out those details as they move forward,” he said.
“Part of our mission is working with the whole child and making sure that kids are healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged. We see this as a good opportunity to work with ACPS with some new initiatives we have and helping them with some of their goals with the school,” Brenchley said. “… We’re engaged in the community, engaged in the schools. Folks are excited about volunteering and having a school as a reminder of why we do what we do right across the way.”