Arlington, VA

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.

On September 23, APS posted the latest version of its Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP plan”). This 78-page plan is based on APS’ latest estimates of enrollment growth.

Highlights of the AFSAP plan include huge projected seat deficits at the elementary and middle school levels over the next Capital Improvement Plan time horizon. There are no specifics about exactly where many of these needed new seats will be located nor how they will be financed.

Elementary school seat deficit

The elementary school seat deficit is particularly troubling.

The 10-year projections establish a need for nearly 2,500 more permanent elementary school seats county wide in Fall 2028-29.

Initial social media commentary on the AFSAP plan criticized APS for not being more creative about design options:

“WHY IS KEY ELEMENTARY 2 STORIES? Seriously, though, we own property practically beside the Metro, in the shadow of 10+ story buildings. Build up! (And I’m a Key parent-the lot could host Key and a neighborhood school).”

APS certainly needs a design makeover: up not out; preservation of mature trees and green space right at design outset; provide only facilities critical to instruction. But the core problem the AFSAP plan exposes is the glacial pace of County and School Board members in producing a long-range plan locating new school seats at specific sites–four years (!) after the Community Facilities Study Group’s recommendations.

Amazon

Amazon’s new HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into providing the missing plans.

In a late 2018 interview, then County Board Chair Katie Cristol tried to downplay Amazon’s impact on our schools:

“[T]he increasing tax base coming from [Amazon]…will more than supplement [the increase in student population attributable to new Amazon employees living here].”

But Cristol didn’t address whether these incremental revenues would be more than offset on net by increased costs attributable to new residents (both Amazon employees and others).

Moreover, APS won’t be the only public claimant for the incremental revenues we hope Amazon will generate. There will be enormous other public claims on those revenues. Arlington is dragging its feet by failing to produce a long-range public facilities financing plan that resolves these competing claims in a site-specific way.

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including, but not limited to, schools)

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), schools, parks, fire stations, affordable housing 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. Are there one-time alternatives to bond financing, e.g., the County’s huge surplus cash reserves

When asked to choose among needing more new school seats, new acres of park open space, and new units of affordable housing, we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices because the community hasn’t been asked.

Conclusion

The APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) prepared an excellent 2018 report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to the lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range 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
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks such a long-range plan today because it has failed to follow these principles.

A highly credentialed and knowledgeable APS activist provided me with this assessment of the new AFSAP plan:

“What’s not discussed here is that we need to create 3,347 additional seats over the last CIP. That roughly translates to another $250M (not including land acquisition costs) over the [last] CIP.”

When, where, and how soon will the missing plans be provided?

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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