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Peter’s Take: APS Capital Improvement Plan is $77.8 Million Over Budget

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Superintendent presented APS’s latest Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) at a May 6 School Board meeting, and APS is committed to adopt its final CIP on June 24.

Inexplicably, APS published its May 6 plan prior to getting detailed cost estimates, and staff’s June 14 cost projections belatedly reveal that the project is $77.8 million over budget.

Career Center plan and background

The Superintendent’s plan for the Career Center site at 816 S. Walter Reed Drive was the centerpiece of his CIP proposal. The Superintendent proposed tearing down the Fenwick building and relocating Arlington Community High School. He also proposed tearing down the Montessori Public School of Arlington (MPSA) building and building a new multi-story structure in the center of the site to house 1,700 secondary students. APS would have then renovated the existing Career Center building for MPSA.

APS was hoping that plan would come in for the $184.7 million it had budgeted on May 6. However, staff presented a budget estimate of $262.5 million at a June 14 meeting.

APS’s Career Center CIP highlights inadequate planning

This CIP process highlights persistent issues in APS planning:

  • APS aggressively moved forward with an ambitious plan without good cost estimates. APS put forth this complex plan without getting an actual cost estimate until ten days before the school board final vote. Despite indicators this plan was too ambitious, APS moved forward until cost estimates forced it to concede the plan was not feasible.
  • APS has made similar wrong projections with this site before. In 2020, APS had proposed to add 1,000 high school students to the site, with a plan for a 2,200-student high school. That proposal was also significantly over budget.
  • APS has not costed a more modest approach. When APS created Arlington Tech in 2016, it never provided adequate instructional facilities such as a library or full gymnasium. APS needs to add these facilities. However, it has not considered a plan that provides only these needed improvements for high school students, which could be accomplished via renovation/additions to the existing Career Center building for substantial cost savings. It’s not clear whether APS will now consider such an option.
  • APS was pushing for middle school seats on this site without considering other locations. APS was planning to add over 500 middle school seats to this site without considering whether it may be more affordable to build elsewhere. Only when the plan came in over budget did APS release information that demonstrates it is more affordable to build middle seats elsewhere (e.g., at Kenmore).
  • APS’s plans are based on uncertain enrollment projections that do not reflect enrollment changes due to the pandemic (enrollment is down 1,600 students).
  • Members of APS’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) expressed significant doubts about this plan, yet APS moved forward anyway until cost projections came in too high. FAC chair John Giambalvo noted in a June 7 meeting that he believed this project had not been adequately considered. Giambalvo said, “I certainly don’t think we’ve done the research into reasonable alternatives that can be much less costly, and that actually could utilize this site much better.” FAC member Chip Goyette concurred, and called the plan “fiscally reckless” given that enrollment trends show APS may actually have open seats in the Western part of the County.

APS must clarify enrollment assumptions and provide reasonable alternatives

APS’s assumptions regarding short, medium, and long-term enrollment at every grade level are critical to both CIP and operating budget planning. APS currently says that both its CIP and operating budget planning are based upon APS’s pre-pandemic Fall 2020 enrollment projections.

Given the enormous uncertainties surrounding actual Fall 2021 enrollment, APS should immediately publish and discuss with the community how its CIP and operating budget assumptions would look if actual Fall 2021 enrollment and projected future enrollment differ substantially from APS’s current assumptions. APS also needs to provide a cost estimate for a more modest expansion of the Career Center building that leaves all other existing programs on site, and better engage with the community on this critical project.

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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