Patrick Henry swing space plan advances

Patrick Henry swing space plan advances
Members of the Patrick Henry community and those opposed to the swing space plan gathered on April 1 to hold a rally before a community meeting with Alexandria City Public Schools staff. (Photo credit: Joel Finkelstein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

A preliminary plan to use the old Patrick Henry School building as a swing space while Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is rebuilt was approved by the school board on April 4. The decision is projected to delay opening of new athletic fields at Patrick Henry by about four years, until fall 2023.

The plan, which the community learned about just two weeks prior to the vote, was intensely opposed by residents near Patrick Henry. Despite approving the measure by an 8-1 vote, school board members expressed concern at the meeting about a range of factors, including equity, safety, the compressed timeframe for the decision and lack of details before the vote.

The new Patrick Henry School opened on Jan. 22, and the old building was slated for demolition in March to create new fields and open play spaces for Patrick Henry students and community members.

However, shortly before completion of the new building, ACPS began exploring the possibility of using it as a swing space while Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is torn down and rebuilt. The open space at MacArthur was deemed inadequate to hold enough temporary trailers or the new school building, meaning the existing building must be torn down to accommodate the rebuild.

ACPS estimates that if city council approves the swing space proposal this fall and plans for the MacArthur rebuild in spring 2020, MacArthur students could begin the 2020-2021 school year in the old Patrick Henry building. A modernized Douglas MacArthur would reopen in January 2023, at which point demolition of the old Patrick Henry building would take place. The new fields and parking lot at Patrick Henry would open in September 2023.

Demolition of the old Patrick Henry School was originally slated for March. A new parking lot and new outdoor play spaces would replace the building.

“It breaks the fundamental promises made to our community to restore and improve green space with a robust rec program and to complete the project in a timely manner,” Mary Sanders, a representative for the Patrick Henry Parent Teacher Association, said at the school board meeting.

Twenty-seven speakers signed up for the public comments section of the school board meeting, half of which spoke in opposition to the swing space plan.

Parents and community members questioned the lack of traffic and environmental safety studies, and expressed skepticism about the proposed timeline of the Douglas MacArthur rebuild.

Many community members also remained concerned about the effects an additional 800 students and staff would have on the already-congested streets surrounding Patrick Henry.

“The current situationis really dangerous,” Leslie Hinton, a member of the Patrick Henry PTA, said before the meeting. “It’s affecting the walkers at Minnie Howard, it’s affecting the walkers at Polk and the students at Patrick Henry. The whole neighborhood has borne a huge burden, and I think it’s really unfair to ask them to continue to put up with it.”

According to ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony, around 15 buses would be needed to move 100 percent of Douglas MacArthur students to the site every day. ACPS is considering staggered start times and is in talks with the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services to adjust trash truck schedules in the area, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. said.

Other members of the community expressed concerns about the equity of the plan.

“This administration talks a lot about equity, but they should not dare to say that word again if this plan goes through because it is absolutely taking advantage of an economically disadvantaged school,” parent Joel Finkelstein said.

According to Hinton, 75.5 percent of Patrick Henry families are economically disadvantaged, compared to only 36.3 percent of Douglas MacArthur families. There is a discrepancy in access to open space, Hinton said, one that will only become more difficult with two student bodies packed onto a single site.

“This is an at-risk community of kids that doesn’t have access to [outdoor play space] in the rest of their life,” Hinton said. “The school is the place where they can come and actually have access to play space, to outdoor green space.”

One community member, Megumi Kito, began to weep as she read her comments to the school board.

“Have you experienced that? Have you really experienced two years of being held inside?” Kito said.

“That access to play is also a learning time as well and it’s just so critical,” School Board Member Michelle Rief said.

ACPS has plans to try to fit more play areas into the design of the swing space, Anthony said.

For many community members, the way ACPS presented the plan to the community was a major sticking point.

“The whole city knows we need swing space, but sort of pulling out of the air a plan to move into a school that was ready to be torn down isn’t innovative; it’s reckless,” Finkelstein said.

School Board Member Heather Thornton voted against the swing space plan, expressing concern about the procedure for the decision. (Courtesy photo)

Despite overwhelming opposition from the Patrick Henry community, there were voices of support at the meeting.

“We realize that we’re really asking Patrick Henry for a sacrifice here,” William Pfister, president of the Douglas MacArthur PTA, said. “We’re going to delay some of their activity, we’re going to come into their neighborhood, but if we wait until 2021, when it’s actually budgeted in the CIP to look for swing space, we’re not going to find it.”

According to Anthony, ACPS is trying to balance immediate needs with long-term plans, and after searching for potential swing space sites, the old Patrick Henry building represented the best immediate solution to Douglas MacArthur’s problem.

“[Douglas MacArthur] is a bigger school and it has 700 kids, which the principal at Patrick Henry said can fit in this older building and it’s our attempt to get that done as quickly and efficiently and with as much coordination with the community and city as possible,” Anthony said.

ACPS still has plans for a long-term swing space, according to Anthony.

Many school board members expressed concerns about evacuation plans, traffic and equity, however School Board Chair Cindy Anderson warned the board against the dangers of extended deliberation.

“Inaction was the plan for too long,” Anderson said.

School Board Member Meagan Alderton echoed that sentiment, noting the horrible conditions in many Alexandria schools.

“Unfortunately, we are all being asked to act because of a longstanding refusal to do so,” Alderton said. “… We’re ready to take on the opportunity right now, and I really hope we can do it together.”

In response to Rief’s and many community members’ concerns that the plan could bring two communities into conflict, Hutchings and School Board Member Chris Suarez emphasized the opportunity for synergy between two different communities.

“I think this could be a really good opportunity to bring two worlds together,” Hutchings said.

Suarez made a motion, seconded by School Board Member Margaret Lorber, to pursue the swing space option at Patrick Henry. However, he included several conditions in an effort to address key concerns with the plan.

Suarez included language with a stated commitment to alleviate traffic concerns at the site and to identify and provide parking for staff and parents both on and off-site. The motion also included language that guarantees the demolition of the old Patrick Henry building after the completion of the Douglas MacArthur school.

In response to Suarez’s motion, School Board Member Heather Thornton voiced unease with the process by which the motion’s many conditions were being brought to the school board.

“I do think that it is inherently problematic that we have to do motions with all of these commitments that we should have discussed way before this vote was even brought up,” Thornton said. “When you make all of these commitments, it takes away from the meat of what we’re actually supposed to be doing which is making a decision based on clear information that we have.”

Thornton cast the lone opposing vote in the 8-1 decision. ACPS staff are expected to finalize a plan by the summer and present it to the school board before taking it before the planning commission and city council.