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Progressive Voice: Schools Planning at a Crossroads

by Gillian Burgess September 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm 1,116 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Gillian BurgessArlington is on the cusp of the most formative decision-making process of recent history: the master planning process for our school system, through which we will create more schools.

The outcomes will impact everyone in the community. We will see reduced or increased congestion on our streets, a wise use of Arlington County’s resources or wasteful spending, and either increased access to services for everyone or only concentrated benefits.

Because of the importance of this process to all of Arlington, the best outcomes will occur through close cooperation between Arlington County government and Arlington Public Schools . Before us is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to come together to both meet the urgent capacity needs of today and lay the foundation for the next generation of Arlington families.

A new, collaborative planning process should make use of both the County’s award-winning expertise in transportation and smart development and our school system’s award-winning expertise in educating children. I am confident that active involvement by our talented APS and County staffs, elected officials and interested residents in developing this new process will lead to success. A broad, inclusive public process will work.

Arlington is a great place to raise a family. It has incredible parks, bike paths, charming neighborhoods, and some of the best public schools in the nation. These characteristics are no accident, but rather the result of decades of award-winning planning and smart development by the County and APS.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen to raise my family here. And I am not alone. Arlington’s public schools are bursting at the seams and continue to grow rapidly. As this growth has overwhelmed school system capacity, the processes we have relied on to plan school capacity in the past are no longer sufficient.

In the past, long-range planning by APS and County government have largely been separate efforts with different time horizons. The County’s long-range planning considers how corridors or study areas are used over 20 or 30 years. Schools, on the other hand, base their planning efforts on shorter-term projections, and are focused more on the classroom.

In the face of a shortage of public land and our rapidly-growing population, we must do a better job of integrating these processes. We must plan, locate, fund, and build school facilities to serve the long-term interest of all our children and community members. We need to look at the system as a whole rather than ad hoc discussions that consider only one location or need.

Our historically separated planning processes have resulted in historically separated budgets. As we consider the schools’ master planning process, it will be important to look at costs and benefits to Arlington as a whole, whether expenditures are going to be part of the APS budget or the County’s budget.

For example, if a particular school location would require many buses that would increase maintenance costs for our roads, those costs should be considered when evaluating that site. We should also consider costs and benefits not immediately quantifiable that we know will have a significant impact on County and APS budgets over time.

This new, improved collaborative master planning process should be guided by shared values and solid principles. Here are some values and principles that I believe should guide the process.

With a shortage of public land and increasing needs for County services and schools, we must find innovative solutions that emphasize the many potential uses of schools facilities. Our schools should be used as community centers throughout the year.

We must use our expertise and experience in transportation planning to ensure that all students and community members are able to walk, bike or take transit to schools safely.

Our schools should be located in central and accessible places that focus on existing activity centers. Such proximity will maximize health benefits, build community and reduce congestion.

The decisions we make today will be critical to the kind of Arlington our children inherit. We must ensure sustainable and environmentally responsible stewardship of our resources.

Arlington is an inclusive, equitable community. Every student and every resident — regardless of our age, income, race, color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or special needs — must have access to high-quality services.

In conclusion, Arlington is a terrific place to live and raise a family. We can make it even better by committing to values and principles leading to a strong collaborative planning process using the best from both County government and APS.

Gillian Burgess is the current Chair of Arlington County’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, the founder of Kidical Mass Arlington, and the former Vice Chair of APS’s Multimodal Transportation and Student Safety Special Committee. She lives in Cherrydale with her husband and two toddlers.

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