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Progressive Voice: We Support Our Schools

Progressive Voice 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.

James LanderArlington’s progressive vision for its public schools has been longstanding and led to remarkable successes. When schools were segregated and Virginia was known for underinvesting in public schools, Arlingtonians organized to make sure that students could attend high-quality, well-constructed and integrated schools. As a result, Arlington became an education leader in the state and the nation.

Today, we continue to invest heavily in education, to have diverse schools and school offerings, and to see students achieve remarkable results.

With our success, and likely because of that success, we now face a dramatic increase in the number of students attending our schools. Families are moving to Arlington because of the reputation of our schools. Families are remaining in Arlington even as they grow because of the positive experiences provided by our schools.

In my time as a School Board member and now as Chair, I have seen the importance of the County Board’s continued investment in our schools and promotion of policies that make it possible for our schools to thrive.

The most recent example is the County Board’s July 19th approval of a 10-year Capital Improvement Plan. That plan would provide for a 2014 school bond that would deliver over $100 million toward construction and renovation of schools that are vitally needed to respond to dramatic school enrollment growth.

I am particularly pleased that the County CIP was the result of healthy collaboration between the County Board and the School Board.

When I was first elected to the School Board in January 2010, our student population was 20,200 and our operating budget was $438.6 million. Just five years later, our student population for the 2014-2015 school year has grown to over 24,000 with an approved operating budget of $539.4 million.

This student enrollment growth of approximately 800 students per year is the equivalent of one elementary school each year. Fortunately, the County Board has used County revenue growth in ways that ensure that the schools can meet instructional needs and address the facility needs of the rapidly increasing student population.

Like our student population, few things have remained constant during my School Board tenure. Colleagues have rotated on/off of the Board and we will soon have two new colleagues. Throughout this transition the County Board has been a steadfast partner.

The County Board’s unwavering support for high-quality public school educations has helped meet steadily increasing operating and capital demands, thereby allowing APS to remain one of the best school systems in the country. As Abby Raphael, my predecessor as Chair, noted recently: “The School Board appreciates the tremendous support that the County Board and the Arlington community provide to our students and our schools. Without this support, APS could not be as successful as it is.”

I am grateful that the County Board’s July 19 action will ensure the school community’s top priority projects for elementary and middle school facilities can move forward as soon as possible.

It was just a month before, on June 16, that the School Board adopted its own CIP for 2014-2015. The FY 2014 bond request — that the County Board fully funded — includes four vital capital projects:

  1. $28.75 million addition and renovation at Abington Elementary School, one of our oldest school facilities projected to be at 107 percent utilization for the Fall;
  2. $50.25 million dollars to plan and construct a new elementary school in South Arlington;
  3. $4 million for planning and design of a sixth middle school that will be located in North Arlington; and
  4. $5 million to reconfigure Washington-Lee to provide classroom space for 300 additional students and reduce the need for more trailers on the N. Quincy Street side.

Beginning this week, APS will engage parents and community members in an ambitious but deliberate and transparent process to determine the locations and sizes of a new elementary school and new middle school.

I look forward to collaborating with the County Board as it evaluates through a public process between now and January 2015 whether the School Board’s preferred new elementary site — somewhere on the Thomas Jefferson site — can be achieved while respecting other key community values including parkland and recreational space.  The middle school decision should be made by January 2015, following staff and community work.

The schedule, dates and locations for both processes will be posted on the APS website. I encourage the community to participate in both processes and I welcome your input and feedback.

James Lander is the Chair of the Arlington County School Board. The views in this column are his individual views.

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