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Peter’s Take: Should Arlington’s New Schools be Located Outside Arlington?

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.

A story posted on the Arlington Sun-Gazette website last Friday asked the question, “Could school system go outside Arlington to find space for students?”

The story only addresses whether Virginia law authorizes Arlington to do so. Answer: yes, but only if Arlington does so in one or more adjacent Virginia jurisdictions: Fairfax County or the Cities of Alexandria or Falls Church.

Discussion

Whether it would make sense for APS to go outside Arlington to find space for Arlington students should be addressed only in the context of a new long-term plan that answers these questions:

  • What new schools do we need?
  • When do we need them?
  • Where in Arlington could/should we put them?
  • What will it cost to put them in Arlington?

In 2017, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy publicly acknowledged that:

  • Arlington County forecasts continued total population and school enrollment growth for many years beyond the 2026 cut-off date in the current Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)
  • Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030
  • APS needs to develop its own long-term new school construction plans well beyond 2026:

“In his report to School Board members, Murphy said the school system will need an additional 2,200-seat high school, plus up to two middle schools and up to four elementary schools, if enrollment continues to push toward, and beyond, 30,000 students.”

Based on the latest publicly-available data, APS is still on the same trajectory Murphy described a few months ago: pushing toward and well beyond 30,000 students.

In December 2017, in preparation for planning its latest CIP out to 2028, APS posted its latest enrollment projections by school and by year. With the requisite explanatory footnotes, these latest projections show an increase from a Fall 2017 total enrollment of 28,020 to a Fall 2027 total enrollment of 32,666.

This latest set of publicly-available data do not include updated capacity utilization numbers for each school, but those are supposed to be published sometime this month.

So long as these population and enrollment forecasts continue to represent the County’s and APS’ best estimates, they should be employed systematically to make long-term planning decisions for all land use and public infrastructure investments (e.g., schools, parks, roads).

It is in this long-term planning context that APS and Arlington County should first examine, and then extensively engage the public regarding, exactly where in Arlington we could/should locate at least one new high school (or maybe two), up to two middle schools, and up to four elementary schools.

This planning and extensive public engagement also should include answers to questions like these:

  • What other potential uses of the Arlington land would be foreclosed or seriously compromised if a new school is located on that land?
  • Would there be other acceptable alternative locations for those other potential uses?

If it appears that:

  • Neither Arlington County nor APS currently own enough available land for all the new schools needed, and
  • If neither Arlington County nor APS can afford to acquire enough new land or lease enough new space in Arlington, then
  • APS might have to look outside Arlington

Conclusion

The County and School Boards must demonstrate that they are:

  • Collaborating seamlessly and transparently on all these issues
  • Listening to public concerns and adjusting accordingly
  • Developing fiscally-sustainable, long term public plans to build the new schools we need when we need them

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