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Peter’s Take: Promises and Pitfalls of the Wilson School Decision

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast week, a joint press release from Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools brought welcome news: APS has decided to retain its Wilson elementary school property in Rosslyn for possible redevelopment as a new secondary school.

The decision regarding the Wilson School site holds promise because it is smart and was announced collaboratively. Pitfalls lie ahead because this is only one of many decisions still to be made relating to school overcrowding.

BACKGROUND

Since 2006, APS enrollment has grown by more than 4,850 students, or 26 percent, reaching a current level of 23,717 students. By 2023, APS enrollment is projected to exceed 30,000 students, a 63 percent increase since 2006.

APS is in the midst of developing various alternative options for the capital spending that will be required to address this enormous enrollment growth. While final capital spending estimates remain to be published, it is a safe bet that this will involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars raised by selling a series of bonds over the next ten years.

WHAT’S NEXT

Capital spending to address school overcrowding must be a top priority for both Arlington County and APS. But, it cannot be a top priority unless the County Board’s current spending priorities are changed to focus on core services.

The rosy environment of 2000-2006, in which money was pouring in over Arlington’s transom, and County Board members hatched unwise capital projects like the Aquatics Center and the Columbia Pike streetcar, is barely visible in Arlington’s rear view mirror.

We face a starkly different environment in which APS enrollment is projected to increase 63 percent from 2006 levels, while commercial office vacancy rates hover near 20 percent. We cannot address this new environment simply by paying lip service to the proposition that spending on schools is “a priority.” In order to provide the money to make schools a priority in a fiscally responsible way, we must acknowledge that some capital projects need to be dropped or deferred.

If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

THE VIHSTADT EFFECT

In the comments section to ARLnow.com’s story on the Wilson School decision, there was a debate about the extent to which John Vihstadt’s election might have influenced that decision. There is a more important point here.  Vihstadt has a remarkably deep civic résumé documenting his involvement in both County and schools issues over a 30-year period. Vihstadt campaigned on a platform of breaking down the silos between the County and the schools, and concentrating our spending on core services like schools.

Vihstadt is in a unique position to bring a fresh perspective to the many school overcrowding challenges that lie ahead. He can help the County and APS to address those issues collaboratively to achieve the best outcomes.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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