City council and school board move forward with high school project

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(Photo Credit: Luke Anderson)
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By Luke Anderson

Members of Alexandria’s city council and school board held a joint meeting on Monday to discuss the next steps of the high school project.

Since the school board’s vote on Sept. 26 in favor of one connected high school network, Alexandria City Public Schools has moved on to the planning phase of the project, ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony said.

As part of the decision to have a connected high school network, the school board also voted to build a 1,600-student satellite campus at T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard campus.

To determine the design of the building to be constructed on the Minnie Howard site, ACPS is using an educational design team made up of four advisory boards, which is being expanded to include more teachers and educators, and peer review research.

Although education specifications for the Minnie Howard satellite campus are not yet completed, Anthony is pushing to begin discussions on various concepts for the design.

“We’re going to have to do some actual massing of the site in different ways,” Anthony said.

The core team is now looking into whether there should be one building or multiple buildings, which classes will be in what buildings, where the site should be accessed and how transportation will be affected.

Anthony said she would like these types of questions answered by the time the city becomes more involved with the zoning process and strategic urban planning, which will commence next spring if all goes according to plan.

Originally, the school board was supposed to decide how to address high school capacity in November 2018; however, unforeseen hurdles have caused the schedule to be delayed by nearly a year, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., said. The goal now is to have the planning phase completed by March or April of 2020 so the design phase can begin.

Hutchings expressed his concern that five months of planning is too much of a time crunch, especially considering that this phase would typically take a school division a year to adequately go through the educational specifications and other aspects of planning.

“We can’t afford to do a year,” Hutchings said.

He added that, due to the time constraints, they are having to push Stantec, the engineering services company hired for the project, to “work at a rapid pace in a more concise timeframe so that we don’t bump out the construction even further, because then we’re going to have some challenges with capacity if we keep pushing it back.”

Once planning is complete, ACPS’ timeline designates two years for designing and two years for construction, placing the completion date for the new building in September 2024 rather than September 2023, as originally anticipated.

Another topic discussed at the joint meeting was ACPS’ need for additional school bus drivers. Just hours before the meeting, a notification was added to the ACPS website listing more than two dozen buses running late that afternoon due to the shortage of drivers. Hutchings reported that ACPS is short 17 school bus drivers as of this week.

ACPS is attempting to attract more transportation employees with recruitment strategies that include covered training costs, pay while training and a $1,000 bonus for any employee who refers someone who is hired, which is highly dependent on background and driving records.

“Money is what’s going to get people to say, ‘Yes,’” Hutchings said.

ACPS staff is looking into creative roles bus drivers can fill between morning and afternoon runs, such as paraprofessional or lunch aide positions. This would potentially allow bus drivers to be hired full time, therefore gaining access to full-time benefits.

Bus routes and start times for schools will also be reevaluated to better utilize employees’ time. Right now, middle school and high school start times are five minutes apart, which “places a huge strain on transportation, especially if [a bus driver] is out,” Hutchings said.

However, any changes to start times will likely not be implemented until the 2021 school year.

More immediately, ACPS will conduct a salary survey for bus drivers in the next couple of weeks to find ways to make the transportation department more robust. Feedback will be used to ensure bus drivers are being offered competitive salaries compared to other Northern Virginia school systems.

City council and the school board also discussed the possibility of a municipal building that would allow them to operate under the same roof. Several potential locations have been discussed, though none have worked out so far.

One of those locations was Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, as the fifth and sixth floors are vacant. City council inquired about using the space for 36 months, a period that clashed with the school’s plans to use the space for additional capacity.

In the search for an adequate space, the city and schools must navigate certain nuances, such as differences in background check requirements, which are more comprehensive for school employees than city employees.

At Ferdinand T. Day, students and city council employees would have separate elevators. However, fire drills would present a problem since city council employees lack the required background check and would be using the same stairwell as students when exiting the building.

“We want to do the collaboration, but we also don’t want to put a square peg in a round hole,” school board chair Cindy Anderson said.

Both parties agreed they should attempt to bring issues to each others’ attention as soon as possible and open a clear line of communication in order to ensure that needs are being met on both sides.

Luke Anderson is a freelance writer in Alexandria. He can be reached at [email protected]

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