Our View: The school maintenance conundrum

Our View: The school maintenance conundrum
Mold on ceiling panels at Mount Vernon Community School. (Photo Credit: ACPS PowerPoint)

Many of Alexandria’s schools have severe maintenance woes. This is not a new issue, but rather a problem that’s been festering for years – with no end in sight.

City officials say school maintenance has never been adequately funded in the budget. Critics question whether what has been budgeted for maintenance actually has been spent on facilities, or whether it’s been diverted for other uses. Parents just want their children to attend schools that are safe and that promote, rather than hinder, learning.

The maintenance problem has come to a head this fall in Mount Vernon Community School, the oldest of Alexandria’s 17 schools. An excessive amount of rain in the past few months has resulted in a leaky roof, dampness and mold, including a few patches of black mold, in the school.

Alexandria City Public Schools officials have been proactive in dealing with the issue – they’ve conducted several assessments, are remediating the mold and are starting a two-part replacement of the roof this month. But conditions are nonetheless troublesome and potentially dangerous for students with asthma or auto-immune illnesses.

ACPS officials must feel that they are constantly in whack-a-mole mode, just dealing with the facility crisis du jour rather than getting ahead of the curve on maintenance. The joint city-schools task force that met throughout 2017, of which ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony was a member, identified maintenance as a key problem.

The task force consultant also recommended maintenance be handled on a city-wide basis, rather than continue the duplicative and costly siloed approach. If a plan that details how this collaboration might happen is not underway, we suggest the city prioritize developing one.

We do think ACPS and the city are, in general, on the right track. You have to fully identify a problem before it can be fixed. Reactive maintenance is the problem. Let’s fix it.

We also think city residents, and not just ACPS parents, have shown a willingness to spend money on schools when the need is clearly identified and the solution well-articulated. But city residents will be loath to hand over significant amounts of money in the form of higher property taxes without evidence that this money is going to be well spent.

That’s why we think it’s vital that the city authorize a line-item, outside audit of all ACPS spending over, say, the past three years, along with a line-item audit of all maintenance spending over the past 10 years. This has been done in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including Fairfax County, in recent years, and meaningful cost savings have been found.

There will be two predictable responses to this suggestion. The first is, “We already conduct an annual, outside audit.” But the reality is Alexandria’s current audit is of processes, not a line-item audit of spending. There’s an enormous difference.

The second reaction will be, “That would cost too much money.” But if other jurisdictions do line-item audits of schools spending, then they must feel it’s worth the cost. Let’s give it a try and see if it helps.

ACPS and city officials cannot reasonably expect Alexandria residents to fork over millions of dollars to fund maintenance at the level that is clearly needed without first making an equal effort to ensure this money will be well spent.

An outside, independent, line-item audit of ACPS spending is essential to securing residents’ trust. Sometimes the right to tax needs to be earned, and this is one of those cases.