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Progressive Voice: School Planning 101 — A Modest Proposal

Gillian BurgessBy Gillian Burgess

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

Arlington Public Schools opened a new elementary school this year, is currently building additions to two other schools, and is building another entirely new school. And the Arlington community is studying where to put another new elementary school. And we need to look at options for the Career Center. And. And. And. There are lots of decisions to make, and these decisions will shape how we live in Arlington.

We need new, creative ideas on how to deal with the capacity crisis in Arlington Public Schools. However, as one wise Facebook commenter wrote, “I feel like these discussions constantly occur in a vacuum, completely ignoring the public processes and discussions that have gone on previously, some of which seriously looked at (and rejected) some of these ideas.”

To fill this vacuum, APS should organize a School Planning 101 session and publish an accompanying website that summarizes the public processes that have come before, explains those that are currently running, and collects relevant data into one easily accessible place. By doing so, APS would not only enable more people to engage in this important process, but also would improve the quality of its decisions.

Many Arlingtonians have already been involved in “More Seats for More Students” or a related process. There have been committees, advisory councils and working groups advising the School Board, the County Board and the Superintendent, all with relevant ideas and recommendations. Coming in fresh to this process is intimidating. When talking to those who have been following this process for years, seemingly every idea has already been considered and evaluated. The enthusiasm of new blood is often quickly tempered by “been there, thought of that, it doesn’t work because.” We need new people and new ideas in this process, and those new people need to understand what has come before. Organizing a School Planning 101 session would enable more people to engage productively.

The work of organizing this information would improve the quality of “More Seats for More Students.” These past committees have made important recommendations, which deserve serious consideration by the School Board and the Superintendent. School Planning 101 should summarize the recommendations of the working groups, providing links to their final reports and other resources. It should also gather the current data that is relevant to school planning — enrollment, projected populations, current capacity and available land – in a place that is easily accessible and up to date. The session should explain the fundamentals of how facilities are paid for, including the difference between capital and operating costs.

The end result would be not only an information session, but also a website so that this information would be available to the general public who could not attend the information session and going forward. This website would gather data and recommendations in one location. Most importantly, as more people become interested in helping out with this important planning process, this website will give them a place to start.

Yes, APS already has a website for “More Seats for More Students.” But it takes you deep into the weeds of the current planning processes. Information on past committees is there, but anyone interested has to dig through the unorganized archive. There is no roadmap, no “START HERE.” My suggestion would create just such a page.

“More Seats for More Students” is one of the most important planning programs of our generation. APS must add thousands of seats for new students over the upcoming years, and will likely build significant facilities to do so. These facilities and their locations will shape the look and livability of Arlington for everyone and will impact the quality of our public schools. Having great public schools is essential not only for our students but also for our property values. By organizing a School Planning 101 session and accompanying website, APS would enable more people to lend their voices and ideas to shaping the future of the public school system. A more informed process will lead to a better result and a more livable Arlington County.

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 three children.

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