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Progressive Voice: A Road to Smart Change

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

By Susan Robinson

After a long and difficult budget process, County and School Board members, staff and citizens heave a sigh of relief and move on. Decision makers balanced demands for services against limited resources. But still, Arlington faces some persistent headwinds:

  • High commercial vacancy rates
  • Growth in the number of current and projected schoolchildren
  • Lack of land for school and county buildings, fields and open space

The county manager warns that population and inflationary pressures will require service modifications, efficiencies and likely increases in taxes and fees next year.

No doubt staff is hard at work looking for better ways of implementing services. Yet with the perspective of a finance professional who knows Arlington civic life well, I offer four suggestions to do things differently and change smartly.

Community Engagement

Public participation in decision-making defines Arlington — but at a cost in dollars, time and focus. The two Boards and their staffs struggle to consider input while managing multiple time-consuming processes. A rumor that developers and contractors add significantly to their cost estimates on Arlington projects to cover the time of rounds of citizen engagement is believable.

The County recently developed a public engagement plan, a good first step. Here are a few additional suggestions.

  • Being up front and clear about who is making each decision and when.
  • Examine the role and effectiveness of the 50-plus county commissions. Streamline as needed.
  • Use new procurement methods authorized by the state to retain the best of citizen engagement without increasing the bureaucracy and cost.
  • Fellow citizens: engage without assuming you’ll get your own way but rather that you’ll improve the outcome for all.

Land Acquisition and Reuse

Two Arlington challenges — lack of land and the high commercial vacancy rate — may combine to create an opportunity. The county should be proactively acquiring land. Good examples are the County’s acquisition of Shirlington property and the schools’ purchase of a foreclosed house.

The County is developing a property acquisition policy; APS should do likewise. While most vacant commercial buildings are not appropriate for schools, they could be repurposed for many non-instructional uses.

We must also optimize our current facilities. For instance, before moving more vehicles and operations to new locations, the Trade Center should be redesigned to increase its current capacity.

Achievable Long-Term Plans

The County and APS have a long history of planning for the future. Each plan sets up high expectations. But while schools have a new Strategic Plan and the County has its Comprehensive Plan, all are essentially aspirational. The path to achieve them isn’t clear. Annual prioritized actions are in short supply. And when one goal collides with another, there seems little strategic sense of what takes top place.

Sharper strategic thinking and good implementation results in success. Remember President John Kennedy’s famous call to action in 1961: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” Many people forget the second part of that, …and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Arlington needs to think through the entire path of what we are trying to achieve–and then focus more clearly on developing realistic timelines for implementation.


The County and Schools already partner to solve critical problems, save money and improve services, but they can do more. The two boards should direct the county manager and superintendent to prioritize and more quickly implement key collaborative efforts.

For example, transport of high school students on ART buses rather than school buses has been discussed for more than 10 years. Indeed, while more high school students now ride ART to school, the lack of space to park school buses, the cost of new buses and the dearth of bus drivers call for more radical action.

Can we eliminate yellow school bus transportation for high school students and replace it with ART buses — letting students ride free and compensating the County for it? A complicated endeavor for sure — but could we pilot it at one site?

Other areas for stronger partnership might be technology, purchasing and mental health and substance abuse services for teens.

Arlington faces significant problems but maintains its status as a highly regarded place to live and work, with excellent schools and services. Given the headwinds facing Arlington, can our leaders look at the problems with fresh perspective and make a County known for “smart growth” just as well-known for smart change and management?

Sue Robinson is Executive Director, Arlington School Administrators, and a member of JFAC (Joint Facilities Advisory Commission). She was APS Assistant Superintendent, Finance and Management Services for 11 years and also served as chair of Arlington County’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission.

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