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Peter’s Take: APS Enrollment Growth Plans Challenged

Peter’s Take 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.

Peter Rousselotnew report by the Schools Committee of the Arlington Civic Federation challenges APS’ enrollment growth plans. The report demonstrates that APS has failed to take into account adequately the possibility that current enrollment forecasts are significantly understated.

Our capital improvement program (CIP) must do a much better job taking into account the possibility that enrollment, and therefore the cost of additional seats, will be significantly higher than now estimated.

Hundreds of millions of our tax dollars are involved.

Enrollment Forecast Issues

The vast preponderance of data points to significantly higher enrollment growth than now forecast by APS:

  • APS enrollment grew 5.2% from 2013 to 2014,
  • From 2015 through 2021, APS forecasts no increase in kindergarten enrollment, despite a 4.5% compound annual growth rate over the past 7 years. The last 6 kindergarten classes have been at least 25% larger than the classes over the prior six years,
  • The APS forecast removes up to 11.1% of students in its forecast between 5th and 6th grade when the recent average loss is only 1.3%, and other factors may understate middle school projections by as many as 700 students in 2024,
  • Sudden changes in medium term projections of cohort progressions are not justified. This disappearance of rising 5th graders masks the need for far more high school capacity to be completed by 2024,
  • APS grew 5.2% last year and averaged 3.7% growth for 4 years, but overall growth rates in the current forecast drop significantly year over year, creating future risk.

Major Implications

Among the major implications of significantly underestimating enrollment growth are these:

  • Building too small, too late is the most costly and disruptive way to expand,
  • We must lower the cost per seat,
  • The CIP must plan much better for higher enrollment growth and attendant costs within financial and space constraints:
    • We need designs that can expand or scale back cost effectively with shorter or longer wings, fewer or additional floors, and gyms and cafeterias on outside walls that can be expanded,
    • We must do the basic math regarding on how many sites APS can build, and the maximum size of cost-effective school additions, before sizing schools and then realizing we need to add 10-20% to the capacity of every school because there is no place left for new schools.

CONCLUSION

The vast majority of enrollment drivers point towards significantly higher enrollment growth and related capital expenditures than currently forecast. APS must make revisions now to take this into account. The County Board must begin now seriously to discuss options such as:

  • developer contributions (proffers),
  • deferral of County capital projects, and/or
  • providing APS with a higher share of overall debt service limits.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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