At the early December public hearing on the School Board’s Capital Improvement Program budget, the current president of the PTA Council said that the PTAC wished to let City Council “know that they can no longer ignore the needs of our public school students”. We would respectfully disagree that the City Council has done so. After many requests from the Council for basic planning, budget and spending information from the School Board – late in coming if it was produced at all – the Council, and more importantly, the tax paying citizens of Alexandria have more than enough facts in hand to doubt the ability of the School Board to manage its capital budget in a fiscally responsible manner.
A ten-year capital budget was approved by City Council and the School Board in May. Yet a mere five months later, Superintendent Crawley proposed an increase of 77.2% by adding an additional $224.6 million. School Board members assured Council members at the City Council retreat in November that they would take a “hard look” at those numbers. Look they did, adding an additional $83 million to the budget. On Dec. 15, the final budget unanimously approved by the School Board added further dollars to result in a final increase of 123% over the budget approved this past May.
The School Board has no bonding authority and depends on its funding from the Council, which is directly accountable to all Alexandria taxpayers. Pulling what amounts to a “bait and switch” could reasonably be viewed as respect for neither. This School Board has repeatedly shown it does not have a great deal of use for transparent governing or public engagement with the Council.
Alexandria has many pressing needs that the Council must balance and the City is facing fiscal shortfalls of a serious nature. Triple A bond ratings allow the City to borrow against the future at relatively reasonable rates but as noted by the Mayor and several Council members at the November retreat, the New York bonding agencies are looking closely at Alexandria’s capital expenditures and would be quick to react to “unplanned bumps” in spending. As always, it is the taxpayers who are on the hook for poor planning.
There are many issues that need to be addressed before the City Council and Alexandria citizens, including parents of children in ACPS, can feel confident that this School Board and its administration are making the best choices for the school system. In an era of multiple demands on Alexandria’s fiscal resources, the mission and direction of the school system needs to be clear and it needs to make sense. Here are only some of the questions that need to be answered:
- The joint City-Schools Long Range Educational Facilities Planning Committee issued its report in June of this year. Many of its recommendations appear to have been ignored in the newly proposed CIP. Why?
- The private pre-school provider community has yet to comment on the new ACPS plan to provide a pre-school center at John Adams Elementary School, a departure from the plan included in the May CIP. Yet private providers can offer these services at a lower cost and in smaller neighborhood-centered facilities. If offering pre-school to at-risk children is the goal, the City should consider offering subsidies to parents to pay for these services at existing pre-schools and help private providers expand their own facilities to new locations. ACPS has long struggled to meet the educational needs of at-risk children within its specific mandate of K-12. Is it wise for the school system to enter this new arena?
- There is a new emphasis by ACPS on something coined as “swing space” to accommodate students and staff who are moved out of an existing school that is being “fully renovated”. ACPS is proposing that millions of dollars be spent to retrofit existing office buildings or recreation centers, with concurrent dislocation of city staff, for school use. These plans do not detail what happens to swing space that is no longer needed after having been retrofitted for a school – a very specific use that does not easily translate to alternative future uses. In the past, school renovations were very carefully planned in manageable stages and children were accommodated on site in mobile classrooms. What is the actual cost-benefit in disruptively moving children across the city to temporary classroom space to speed up the renovation of an existing school?
- The School Board has pledged to complete redistricting in January of 2017. Yet, as just one example, the plan for a pre-school at John Adams Elementary School would involve relocating elementary students at that school. How can one decide on a feasible long term redistricting plan with a CIP containing newly proposed projects that may not be funded and, if they are, would throw such a plan in flux from the start? Parents have a right to at least a reasonable reliance on what school their children will attend.
The latest CIP includes plans for a second pre-school center, a new elementary school, a new middle school and a new high school which will require another redistricting on the heels of the current attempt. Jefferson-Houston, formerly a “failing” school under state standards which could have benefited from following the Lyles-Crouch model, was replaced with a huge new school that is still under capacity and remains a failing school. The new T. C. Williams, built in a location that negated expansion opportunities, has been open less than 10 years and is already deemed “overcrowded”. Patrick Henry’s expansion plans were handled in a manner that was divisive and created an atmosphere where confidence in the process and the results were compromised. And it is likely that potential housing developments in the West End will replace low-rise, low to moderate income apartment dwellings with more expensive town homes and commercial development which will most likely produce fewer students.
Competent long range planning that has been vetted in public meetings is the foundation of any reliable CIP. The sheer size of a 123% capital budget increase over the course of a few months would seem to provide ample evidence of a serious lack of strategic planning on the part of the Superintendent and the School Board.
Virginia counties are required by law to hold a public referendum when they go to the market for general obligation bonds for construction. Individual planning justifications, cost estimates, and construction timelines are required for each project and the vote by the citizenry is binding. Virginia cities may hold a similar public referendum, though the result is non-binding and advisory only. This is an option worth serious consideration by the Council.
We believe the Council has been very responsive to the needs of the school system. There are good things in the ACPS CIP that was passed by both the Council and School Board in May and it is right for the school community to press on those issues. But credibility is a precious commodity and it is the School Board that is failing our students in that regard.