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Working Group Can’t Agree on Elementary School Plan for TJ Middle School

(Updated at 5:55 p.m.) The working group charged by the county to help decide the fate of the green space next to Thomas Jefferson Middle School says it was unable reach a final consensus.

Arlington Public Schools is eyeing land surrounding the middle school as the site for a new $50 million, 725-seat elementary school for south Arlington. Those funds were adopted by the School Board as part of the 2015-2024 Capital Improvement Plan last June, and approved as part of the schools bond referendum by Arlington voters in November.

The 20-member Thomas Jefferson Working Group was formed by the Arlington County Board last year, after APS announced the middle school’s surrounding area was its “preferred” location for a new elementary school. The group has met 10 times over the last five months but still couldn’t reach an agreement on how best to proceed.

“While the group could not reach full consensus within tight constraints, we do agree on strong guidelines under which a new school, if approved, could be fitted into this important site without harming TJ Park or the many community activities there,” working group chair Carrie Johnson said in a press release.

An advocacy group, Friends of Thomas Jefferson Park, formed soon after APS announced it was considering the TJ site, and the Friends group has been expressing vocal opposition to the placement of a new school on existing parkland at the 27-acre site.

“Building adjacent to the middle school ignores the county’s future recreation needs by permanently converting parkland and valuable open space to non-park and recreation uses,” Friends group President Jim Presswood said in a December press release. “We agree that Arlington needs more seats for students, but we should not have to choose between schools and parks.”

The group now leaves the decision of whether to build on the site up to the County Board. If the Board elects not to build on the site, the elementary school seats the school could have provided to South Arlington would come from additions at Barcroft and Randolph Elementary Schools, an alternative plan the School Board has already approved but is more expensive than building a new school.

Johnson will present the working group’s recommendations to the County Board at its Saturday meeting, and the Board is expected to respond during its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 27. During its deliberations, the working group engaged the community with open meetings, surveys and involving local civic associations in the discussion.

Any plan to build a school at the site needs County Board approval because part of the land is owned by the county, not Arlington Public Schools.

The complete working group report is available online. The group found that it’s feasible to build an elementary school site to the west of the existing middle school and it would have a relatively minor impact on current recreational uses. However, the group says building on the site removes it from consideration for future parkland — for which it’s currently slated — and it would pre-empt the comprehensive study the County Board is launching this year of all county- and school-owned properties for future use.

“We welcomed the Jan. 1 announcement of the Arlington Community Facilities Study being undertaken by the County Board and School Board with broad public involvement,” the working group said in its report. “Schools and parks are both essential for healthy individual and community growth and should be planned together, not pitted against each other at site after site.”

The report reflects the difference in opinion and priorities of the group’s members and the county at large. Those speaking in favor of the school at TJ cited:

  • The immediate need for more elementary school seats in south Arlington
  • The lower cost of building a new school compared to additions
  • Programming and environmental benefits of having an elementary school next to a middle school

Those arguments were countered with concerns over eliminating potential future parkland and the fact that the proposed parking structure would put the project over its $50.25 million budget.

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