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Peter’s Take: Arlington Must Jump Start Long-Range Schools Planning

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.

Amazon’s new Arlington HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into planning for all the new public schools Arlington will need over the next 15 years.

In an interview striving to minimize Amazon’s impact on our schools, County Board Chair Katie Cristol observed:

A job doesn’t create students. A housing unit or a family generates students. Our highest estimates are that 15 to 20 percent (4,000 to 5,000) of these Amazon employees will live in Arlington County. [W]e anticipate that’s between 80 and 100 more students (from pre-K to 12th grade) per year, and that’s at the high peak…

I think the most important thing for our schools is that the increasing tax base coming from [Amazon] could bring up to $360 million over 16 years, of which 46 percent will go to our schools. [E]ven under the most extreme scenarios [that additional revenue] will more than supplement [the increase in student population].

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including schools)

Arlington prides itself on its comprehensive planning:

But neither APS nor fiscal considerations have been appropriately integrated into any of those long-range plans.

Since Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community supported, long-range financing plan for all the new public facilities Arlington will need over the next 15 years, we cannot evaluate fully Chair Cristol’s hopes about Amazon’s minimal impact on our schools.

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), affordable housing, schools, parks, fire stations and other public investments that will be required? Will we have such bond capacity under several different, but all plausible, alternative economic scenarios? Note: as taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate the costs of many other items, including “affordable” housing.

When asked to choose among:

  • “X” more needed new school seats
  • “Y” more needed new acres of park open space
  • “Z” more needed new units of affordable housing

we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices.

And, it is certain that such choices will be required.

Arlington’s failure to plan appropriately for the impact on APS enrollment of new, large multi-unit housing developments undermines Chair Cristol’s optimism. The county and APS continue to promote the fantasy that new elevator apartments don’t present significant challenges for APS because such apartments generate only 0.08 students per unit. However, the principal challenge we confront isn’t the per-unit generation rate but rather the absolute number of students generated when:

  • thousands of these units are being built every year
  • these units are not evenly distributed across the county

Conclusion

The APS Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC) has prepared an excellent report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to a lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range (15 years) facilities planning must follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • clear understanding of who is responsible for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks an appropriate long-range facilities plan now because it has failed to follow these principles.

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