October 16, 2017 Published in Editorials

Swinging The Space

alexandrianews.org Editorial

One of the requests that the School Board has made of City Council is for funding of so-called “swing space”. Swing space is a place outfitted like a school to which students may be temporarily transferred while their own school is being renovated.

Alexandria has not employed this technique before because it is very expensive. If a school is vacant while under renovation it saves time and money on the renovation. The cost of acquiring and outfitting the swing space is large and the costs of operating it adds to the costs of the school renovation. Alexandria has renovated schools around students by doing the heavy work in the summer when the building can be vacant or after school and on weekends when the student body is not present. Temporary classrooms can also be installed on the school grounds.

Working around students is not ideal for the students who must put up with the disruption and the distractions that go with it. It is particularly difficult when the old school must be replaced on the same site. T.C. Williams High School and Jefferson Houston PreK-8 School  were successfully done this way but there have been many issues with Patrick Henry PreK-8 School where the location of the new school poses serious issues for the neighbors that the old one did not.

 The School Board proposed that the City give them back the Lee Center located at the southeast corner of the city to use as swing space. The logic is simple and straightforward. Lee Center was built as the Robert E. Lee School and it should be relatively easy to turn it back into a school. The Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center and the former school grounds that surround the site make it far easier to meet current state standards.

The problem with this approach is that Lee Center is home to the City Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, the Fire Department Professional Development Center and several partnerships with private non-profit groups which have constructed special purpose operations in or adjacent to the Center. To replace all this adds a huge cost to the proposed project.

The Schools have no problem with the Recreation Center spaces and other joint use spaces located in and around the building being used by others outside of school hours  provided the space used for the school can house 700 students. These requirements present difficulties. Much of the current programming is operated when school is in session and most of the building is likely to be needed for a student body of 700. While some uses might be shifted to the Durant Center which does not operate during the day at present and other sites, that would not take care of others such as the need for an auditorium (the one at Lee Center is used about 170 times each year).

The City commissioned a report to examine the cost and feasibility of allowing the Schools to use the Lee Center as elementary school swing space and it was presented to the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force a few weeks ago. The report indicated that the costs to relocate RPCA offices, to prepare alternative sites for the displaced programs and to configure the Lee Center as elementary school swing space would amount to nearly $40 million without contingency and perhaps a few million more with contingency. We know that budgets seem to grow rather than shrink when projects are implemented.

At present, Arlington County utilizes swing space and the recently departed Alexandria City Public Schools’ superintendent (who worked in Arlington most of his career) brought the idea with him to Alexandria. Alexandria is not Arlington and though all jurisdictions are looking at revenue issues Arlington has been the least impacted. This proposed alternative will certainly have repercussions on Alexandria’s property tax rate unless the schools can demonstrate that the cost of the swing space will be covered by the savings realized in renovation and/or new construction costs. To date we have not seen that.

We view the City’s persistent revenue shortfall as the major driving force in analyzing major expenditure decisions. The entire Patrick Henry Project is costing about $50 million. The idea to spend $40 to $45 million on a swing space school appears profligate in a time of fiscal austerity. Furthermore, the disruption to ongoing operations of RPCA, Fire and many other operations is profound.

We encourage the Joint Task Force to review this issue carefully. The City has many needs and a constrained ability to raise new revenue except to find new ways to tax the same taxpayers. Before this kind of money is spent on this kind of program with its far reaching disruptions, we need to see the most careful justification arrived at openly and presented honestly to our citizens.

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