City-schools facilities task force makes recommendations to council

City-schools facilities task force makes recommendations to council
(Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Members of the joint city-schools facility investment task force presented their recommendations to city council and the school board Tuesday night, one day after School Board Chair Ramee Gentry had presented the schools’ current 10year Capital Improvement Program request to council.

The task force was created early in 2017 after several acrimonious meetings where advocates for Alexandria City Public Schools berated members of city council for not fully funding the needs of schools, both in the capital and operating budgets. The standoff occurred after then-Superintendent Dr. Alvin Crawley and the school board increased the schools’ CIP budget request by 40 percent within a fewmonth span.

The task force was charged with finding ways to improve processes and examining ways for greater cooperation between the city and schools for on-going maintenance and CIP

At Tuesday’s meeting, task force members said unifying bodies and plans were needed between the city and schools budgets.

The task force members specifically recommended a shift in focus from projects to necessary capabilities, the formation of a joint capital management council, the creation of a long-term joint facilities master plan and the decoupling of the capital and operating budgets.

Task force member Elliott Branch said the school and the city should focus on establishing a capability development model. Branch said that would allow city planners to consider all options, including innovative solutions.

“Demand management asks the question ‘How do we express that capability?’ Is this something I need to build, partner with another jurisdiction for, is this something I can buy, can I partner with a private organization? How do we fulfill it?” Branch said at the meeting.

Eric Wagner, another member of the task force, talked about the need to create unity between the city and ACPS. Wagner said the implications of the disjointedness in the competing capital budgets were bad for the city.

“City council is deprived of the ability to consider truly integrated priorities across all of the capital needs that need to be met by limited tax dollars,” Wagner said. “The lack of jointness has led to suboptimal use of resources in the city.”

Wagner said the desired unity could be achieved by creating a joint capital management council that considers how the needs of the city and the school intersect by creating the afore-mentioned capability delivery model and capital allocation process.

“The group’s job will be to evaluate and implement capabilities … and to reach consensus about what projects are going to move forward, what projects will be left behind … so that by the time the capital budget comes in front of the city for approval and subsequent implementation there will be achieved a consensus across the two branches of government,” Wagner said.

Branch, further, said there’s a need for a facilities master plan that would provide a comprehensive view of the city’s needs and what resources the city has, including, Branch added, the scarcest resource of all: real estate.

“We are a city that’s 15.5 square miles. We can pretty much tell you what leeway we have to build, what population density we can absorb. There’s no reason we can’t establish a working set of assumptions on how the city will develop over the next 10 to 15 years,” Branch said. “It will give us a point of departure.”

Wagner suggested altering the budget calendar so that the capital budget is worked on well in advance of the operating budget. Wagner said his employer, MedStar, did a similar change in approach.

“This way, the capital budget gets taken to its almost complete stage well before the operating budget is under development. It is sitting on a shelf ready to merge with an operating budget for final consideration,” Wagner said.

Another suggestion brought up by Wagner was eliminating the practice of putting projects firmly in certain out years. The task force, instead, recommends creating a “bucket” for certain projects that are far out.

“Within three years of a capital project, there’s a fair degree of uncertainty,” Wagner said. “Three years out from a capital project, our crystal balls just weren’t sharp enough to know what was going to happen. This takes away the artificial specificity.”

Dwight Denton, who cochaired the task force’s alternative delivery methods subcommittee, recommended leadership challenge the ways things have traditionally been done and tear
down silos between various departments and organizations.

“We’re a living organism here in Alexandria. Our DNA will always be our DNA. With the needs and requirements put before us, the way we express DNA is going to evolve … As a city, as a whole, the citizens are one big family, but we’re a family that has competing needs,” Denton said.

Fellow co-chair Dave Millard said staff members should be empowered to think outside of the box. He suggested creating an award for an employee who actively works to create alternative solutions for facility needs.

“Risk-taking should be rewarded, not stymied,” Millard said.

Denton and Millard also said the city and the schools haven’t utilized all the opportunities presented by the private sector. They recommended using the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership to access more funding streams. The two also said capital projects need to find “champions” that can help get them through each hurdle.

“Come up with champions who don’t do the bare minimum, who carry the water when things get difficult or when they run into a brick wall. They’re the Navy SEALs,” Denton said.

Task force member Amy Liu, who chaired the committee on maintenance and operations, emphasized the need for keeping up maintenance on fast-aging facilities and also discussed the importance of sharing data between the city and the schools when it comes to facility maintenance.

“We should be good asset managers and owners so we can partner with outside entities where appropriate,” Liu said. “This requires that we know capital needs, have procedures in place so we can advocate well on behalf of taxpayers in the city. Otherwise, we are in the dark.”

Liu said, in the immediate future, the city should do expedited maintenance to get certain facilities up to baseline, similar to WMATA’s SafeTrack program.

When it came time for city councilors to weigh in, Councilor Tim Lovain expressed concern that decoupling the capital and operating budget would make for an elongated budget process. He also said he was concerned about the difficulty of completing a common plan and the time some of the recommendations would require of staff.

“The bottom line on a lot of these is ‘are we going to be saving staff time or adding staff time?’” Lovain said.

Task force chair Lynn Hampton said, regardless of the time it adds, some of the maintenance needs to happen quickly.

“The catch-up is going to be key. You’re going to find buildings last longer, you’re not going to have so many crashes and things like that. The key is getting the maintenance done and then looking at alternative delivery methods,” Hampton said. “You’re going to be saving money and time, but you’ve got to be able to get over the hump.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said he was generally in favor of decoupling the capital and operating budgets, but expressed caution on how they approach the out years in the capital budget.

“We came from a place where we used to have, in out years, a lot of fuzziness … I do want to be careful about fuzzying up out years,” Wilson said. “… I don’t want a place where we just park hope-filled budget plans.” Wagner said, in response, that for the sake of clarity and due to the constantly changing environment surrounding development, placeholders are necessary.”

“We recognized the fact that citizens get very frustrated when we put things up on the capital plan and it never happens,” Wagner said. “I think we’re trying to avoid having a false sense of certainty.”

Councilor John Chapman pondered the political will of implementing best practices, asking if the task force believed certain measures would withstand scrutiny.

“You’re going to have a lot of pressure that is ‘lower my taxes.’ If you’re not raising taxes, you’re going to have to get creative. You’re going to have to look for alternatives,” Hampton said.

City Manager Mark Jinks said the recommendations are already being implemented in some ways and that he, the interim superintendent and city staff had sat down to talk about next steps last week.

“We are all asking, ‘How can we work smarter with what we have?’ We will be evaluating what more we need to do to make this all happen,” Interim Superintendent Lois Berlin said. “But we know we need to make it all happen.”