Arlington, VA

Progressive Voice is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By John Giambalvo 

Student enrollment projections by Arlington Public Schools (APS) impact all Arlington residents, and have a direct impact on spending for new schools, school bonds and debt service, parking and traffic, for example — which directly affect quality of life, property values and taxes. With Arlington’s population growing for the foreseeable future, APS must have accurate projections for effective school construction planning.

APS and Arlington County have made strides recently in sharing information to improve projection accuracy. For example, the county now shares residential construction information with APS that not only improves aggregate projections, but also helps APS understand where the growth will likely take place and which schools it will affect.

However, despite all the data analysis, these projections remain part art. The latest projections anticipate about 3,200 fewer students for 2028-29 than were projected in Fall 2018; and this significant difference potentially affects the school system’s new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP is a project and financial planning document covering a 10-year period and is updated every two years.

APS now estimates enrollment will grow to about 31,000 students five years from now and then level off over the subsequent five years (versus continued steady growth as previously projected), despite an estimated 1,400 housing units coming online annually in the next decade. This odd stalling of student growth — despite robust residential construction–is based on a lower projected birth rate. While the lower birth rate is based on expert input, I believe we must be prepared if this does not come to pass and thus student population grows more than anticipated or grows in areas where we are already struggling to provide sufficient school seats. But how?

Continued improvement in information-sharing between APS and the county will help, as more data generally yields better accuracy. But, this needs to then go one step further.

The county is a critical partner. It controls policy and development decisions that directly impact APS, and over which APS has no control. Approving new residential housing, especially with increased density, is a County Board function as is attracting Amazon and other businesses to the county. APS must be able to successfully educate the additional students arising from new housing units and businesses. The best way to do this is for the county to be even more explicit and comprehensive in weighing how its decisions on housing and economic development could impact student growth.

For example, new multi-unit housing developments, especially those with extra density that the County Board allots, should be clearly plotted to show proximity to and effects on schools. This could help anticipate new school sites or more effectively manage school capacity. Also, the county and APS need to capture — much earlier in the process — the potential impact of new housing on current and new student enrollment.

Of course, the county has multiple factors to weigh in its policy and spending decisions. However, APS interests should be a priority for the following reasons:

  • First, APS is approximately half of the county budget. The county can help itself by taking an active role in realizing and accounting for anticipated APS needs as early as possible in its decision-making. Ideally, APS would then be in a position to be more proactive (and cost effective) about student growth and changes (up or down) in projections.
  • Second, the engine for the county’s growth is education–workforce and schools. People and businesses come here for that reason. Reliable enrollment projections help the county to be well-positioned to maintain that attraction.
  • Third, our land-constrained county will be in a better position to locate schools or acquire property in locations that match the need as much as possible, thus saving money for all taxpayers, whether or not they have children currently in Arlington public schools.

So in 2020, can we work relentlessly toward this goal? When APS and the county are working together to generate the most accurate and reliable student enrollment projections possible, then Arlington can better deliver outstanding instruction to all students, and better financial and land-use planning for the whole county.

John Giambalvo has resided in Arlington County since 2004 and currently serves as Chair of the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC).

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