It’s back to the drawing board for school administrators trying to keep up with soaring elementary enrollment in South Arlington.
A County Board vote Tuesday night threatens to turn elementary schools south of Route 50 into virtual trailer parks — as Arlington Public Schools administrators scramble to come up with ideas, studies and public support for new school construction.
The County Board voted 4-1 to say “not now,” to the School Board’s request to build a new elementary school on county-owned land next to Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Libby Garvey, a former School Board chair, cast the dissenting vote.
The School Board previously vowed to provide 725 new elementary school seats in South Arlington by September 2018, but last night’s decision has put that goal in doubt. Those voting against the school said APS didn’t make enough of a case to the community that the TJ site was the best option.
“I don’t think the School Board organized the data and presented the data in a way that everyone in South Arlington can say ‘I see what they’re doing… this is the best they’re going to be able to do,'” County Board Chair Mary Hynes, also a former School Board hair, told ARLnow.com today. “The broader community does not understand that.”
Garvey, however, blasted the decision.
“South Arlington needs a new elementary school and they need it now,” she told ARLnow.com.
According to a press release, the School Board can re-submit their request to the county to build next to TJ, but only after it provides a full analysis of sites and potential additions in South Arlington, including “feasible non-construction strategies.” The analysis must include, Mary Hynes said, “tradeoffs with parking, green space and traffic implications.”
The School Board must also have “as close to final estimate” of what funding it needs from the county on top of the $50.25 million approved in the 2014 bond referendum. Initial estimates peg an underground parking deck at $7 million, money not included in the bond question.
The School Board has already approved an alternative plan for South Arlington elementary schools: building additions onto Randolph and Barcroft elementary schools. But School Board member Abby Raphael told ARLnow.com that it’s far from certain that the Board will move forward with those plans.
“In light of what the County Board’s decision is, the School Board is going to have to consider what our next steps are,” Raphael said.
If no permanent seats are built by 2018, elementary schools south of Route 50 will be over capacity by 894 students, according to APS projections. If no alternative, temporary solutions are found, that would mean 45 more relocatable classrooms would have to be installed at South Arlington elementary schools, more than double the 38 currently in use.
In APS’ presentation for the County Board last night, schools staff laid out the realities of South Arlington’s enrollment growth. Based on current projections, the area needs either two new elementary schools, one new school and three additions on existing schools, or six additions by 2024. APS projects that 1,384 additional students will need elementary school seats in South Arlington in the next 10 years.
“I thought the schools did a spectacular job in their presentation and clearly addressed the concerns that had been expressed,” by opponents, Garvey said today. “I was extremely disappointed… We’re building a new school in North Arlington and now we’re telling South Arlington ‘oh well, never mind.'”
Raphael said the County Board’s decision was “frustrating” and felt the School Board had done more than enough to inform the community and justify its decision.
“I’m not sure that the County Board and maybe some of the community have a full appreciation of the work we’ve been doing since 2011,” Raphael said. “There’s extensive documentation on all the feasibility studies we’ve done. I don’t know what else the county is expecting us to do for that.”
The opposition to the new Thomas Jefferson elementary school proposal was led by the Friends of TJ Park, a group of residents that sought to preserve parkland as well as the parking lot to the west of the middle school, which is categorized by the county as future parkland.
“We believe the County Board is right to set up a robust and creative process to involve Arlington’s citizens in finding ways to meet the multiple needs of the county,” Jim Presswood, president of the Friends of TJ Park, said in a press release. “We recognize that our growing population needs increased school capacity, but we think that capacity can be added without reducing the parkland, open spaces and recreational capacity of the county.”
The County Board is encouraging schools to explore temporary measures to handle the additional students, and Hynes said county facilities not currently used for schools should be on the table, including community centers with gymnasiums and cafeterias. Relocatable classrooms, referred to informally as trailers, could be placed around the community centers as a makeshift solution, Hynes said.
APS staff told ARLnow.com that “increasing utilization of existing buildings,” adding trailers, increasing class size and using county and commercial space are all options it’s considering as temporary fixes before new school construction — wherever it happens — begins.
School Board Chair James Lander said he was “encouraged” by Tuesday night’s meeting, and said capacity concerns have derailed school officials from focusing on their most important goal: improving instruction.
“The School Board has not had a dedicated conversation about instruction in the last five years,” Lander said. “We spend so much time talking about construction, capacity and budget, we have not had the conversation we need to have. As a parent in South Arlington, we don’t need new schools, we need quality education.”
Elementary schools in South Arlington — particularly Barcroft and Randolph — have not matched their counterparts around the county on standardized testing performance. Both schools were below the state average in English and math on the Standards of Learning tests last year.
Lander suggested moving the 400-seat Montessori program out of the Drew Model School in Nauck and into a separate facility, freeing up those seats for an expanded neighborhood school and reducing the need for dozens of relocatable classrooms. He did not mention which facility he would want to move the Montessori program to.
“The people who are saying South Arlington is going to turn into a trailer park, I wouldn’t sign on to that,” he said. “That’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Regardless of what kind of facilities come, the youngest public school students in South Arlington will be forced to make do with temporary accommodations, either in trailers, alternative buildings or even more tightly packed schools. With precious little unused space around Arlington — let alone enough space to accommodate a school — the questions that the County Board may soon start to grapple with are: which is more important, parks or schools? And when should neighbor concerns outweigh expediency and broader community needs?
Tuesday night, the Board declined to answer. Garvey suggested that more fortitude may be necessary to do the right thing.
“I think this Board doesn’t tend to make tough decisions,” Garvey told ARLnow.com. “Our job is to make decisions.”
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