On Saturday, Dec. 17 the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved the School Board’s plan for replacing the existing Patrick Henry Elementary School with a new larger pre-K through eighth grade facility and a larger City recreation center. Council’s vote followed a unanimous Planning Commission approval earlier in December. The votes ended a process that spanned a number of years and which generated controversy up until the end.
Neighbors of the school who reside on Latham Street were concerned that the new plan moved the mass of the school to their end of the property, reduced the green space they saw and required school buses to enter the property from narrow Latham rather than the much wider and more heavily traveled Taney Avenue side as they do now. As part of the process an advisory group was formed. This group recommended an alternative that allowed the buses to enter from Taney. This alternative took up more of the green space on the site because of the greater turning radius needed for the buses and was rejected by the School Board.
We editorialized on this subject this past May and demonstrated that the issues were driven by the siting of the new school building. If the School Board had decided to renovate Patrick Henry and build an addition onto it or to tear it down and rebuild the new school on the same part of the property, many of these issues would not have arisen. On the other hand, both of these alternative approaches had drawbacks.
Several members of Council spoke to this issue before voting for the plan. Councilwoman Pepper who represented the City Council on the advisory group indicated that they were under the impression that the group’s recommendation would be accepted, were surprised when it was not and “hoped” that they could learn something from why the process didn’t work. Mayor Silberberg expressed great concern and “hoped” that there could be discussions before other projects went forward.
At this point we are not impressed with “HOPE”. If these issues were of real concern then Council simply should have deferred the matter until they could be resolved. If not then the vote should have been taken without the political statements that were of no value to neighbors who, from their point of view, had just been thrown under the school bus.
If Council had deferred the item it would not have caused a crisis. The new school adds very few elementary seats and only adds middle school seats one grade at a time. It has been under discussion for years. The Board was slow in bringing it forward. A few more months would not have mattered.
The real question is why this happened and it is very clear why. Once fundamental decisions are made at the beginning of the planning process (such as the architectural group for the project and what alternatives for siting the school are going to be seriously considered) the die is pretty well cast. For Patrick Henry the School Board chose the same group of architects that planned T. C. Williams. That group works mostly in suburban and rural jurisdictions and urban schools have a very different environment. Those architects also did not look at siting alternatives during the TC design process. They present a chosen concept and defend it when alternatives are suggested.
The School Board, moreover, has shown itself to be hostile to the interests of neighbors unless they agree to what the Board wants to do. They are unlikely to push any architects to look realistically and fairly at alternatives. In fact, the School Board does not really work cooperatively with the Council preferring to exert its own supremacy in educational matters including capital items.
City Council should have been well aware of this and not had any expectations that a public engagement process would produce results different from what occurred. To now “HOPE” that things will be different in the future is worse than useless. We submit that the process will only change when Council develops a real plan for dealing with the School Board and part of that plan must be to exercise its ultimate fiscal power and leadership on behalf of the city as a whole.
City residents must understand the situation. Far too many voters do not participate in the election of School Board members preferring to leave it to those who have children in the schools. This produces a Board which is not well balanced. Under the Virginia Code the Board is supposed to take the needs of the schools and fit them into the ability of their jurisdiction to bear the burden. Our Board is just a cheerleader for students and parents asking for what pleases them and ignoring the City’s precarious fiscal situation.
Until citizens realize that they must encourage and select School Board members who have a city-wide vision, neighbors of schools will be subject to the same treatment as those at Patrick Henry. Until Council members recognize the need to examine themselves and how they have allowed the School Board to preempt their own powers, they will not have a workable plan to insure that public engagement works in the educational area as it does in other City issues.