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.
Our school population is growing — projected to exceed 30,000 students in five years. More than 20 percent of our business office space is vacant, hit hard by sequestration, BRAC, GSA cutbacks, and other government spending cuts. And development has exploded and property values have increased, creating unprecedented challenges to affordable housing and the neighborhood feel of Arlington.
That’s why I believe that it is so important now that the County Board and School Board have formed a Community Facilities Study Committee — which meets for the first time this week — to analyze our current financial resources and physical assets, discuss our infrastructure challenges, and make recommendations for our community to move forward.
In some ways, the premise of the committee is unimpeachable — of course there is value in knowing what assets we have and planning for where we are going. But there are aspects of the committee that I believe make it particularly well-suited to the task at hand.
For one, it represents a collaborative effort between the County Board and School Board. All too often, the County Board and School Board have felt siloed. To be sure, there have been cooperative efforts among board members and initiatives that have broken through these walls, but in general, the School Board has focused on schools, and the County Board has tended to focus on other community needs. The Community Facilities Study Committee will bring both boards into the same conversation.
Similarly, the committee is structured to bring all community groups to the table. County interests are represented by current members and veterans of several county advisory bodies. School interests are represented by members of school advisory councils and PTAs. And neighborhood interests are represented by members of civic associations from across Arlington. This diversity of views will help ensure that all interests have voice as the committee divides limited land and budget resources.
Finally, the committee represents a bipartisan effort premised on community engagement — the so-called “Arlington Way.” This will begin with monthly “resident forums,” and it will continue as the diverse views of committee members are heard and factored over the course of a year of discussion.
In 1975, the county plans that served as the foundation of our vibrant Rosslyn-Ballston corridor were the product of extensive community discussion and engagement. The Community Facilities Study Committee rightfully recognizes that that same model is needed for Arlington’s next chapter.
To be sure, even with the right structure, the committee faces no easy task. There is no shortage of strong viewpoints in Arlington, and no shortage of constituents willing to voice them.
For my part, I urge the Committee to start with and prioritize school capacity issues. As I walk through my neighborhood, I cannot help but be struck by the number of parents with kids who call Arlington home. Those families, like mine, came to or stay in Arlington because of the promise our great schools carry. Our growing population and growing property values are a reflection of our good schools, and the continued success of our community depends on investing and maintaining this critical community asset.
Indeed, investing in schools has a double-benefit, as schools are a key preserver of playing fields, recreational facilities, and open space. One only needs to join me as I take my kids to Saturday swim lessons at Arlington high schools to see how well-used and well-valued these community assets are.
Moreover, schools are also key driver of economic development, as they serve as a primary distinguisher for Arlington as we compete for business investment in our vacant office space.
In voicing the above, I recognize that my opinion is one of many that the committee will need to factor in fulfilling its charge. But I take comfort in the fact that I and others in our community now have a ready outlet to voice these views, and I commend the County Board, School Board, and Community Facilities Study Committee members for addressing this challenge head on.
Mike Lieberman is the Immediate Past Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, and a former member of the Arlington Transportation and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commissions.