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Ed Talk: Capital Improvement Planning is Backward

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

“A backward situation.” That’s how Arlington School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen described the planning process for the expansion of the Career Center during the Board’s Sept. 21 work session on the upcoming Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

What’s backward is staff’s proposed timeline that has the School Board voting in October to set a budget and the number of seats for the Career Center project. Instead, these decisions should not be made until the School Board votes on its next CIP in June.

The Board’s detailed CIP procedures provide for the Board to have critical information needed to make capital improvement decisions — information that it will not have until the winter and spring, including updated:

  • Enrollment projections
  • County revenue estimates
  • Assessments of capital and non-capital options to meet student needs
  • Priorities for capital options

The history of addressing the need for additional high school seats and the option of locating them at the Career Center has been fraught.

More than three years ago, the School Board set a budget ($184.7 million) and the number of seats (800) for the Career Center expansion as part of its FY2019-28 CIP, adopted in June 2018.

But the School Board dropped the project from its FY2021 CIP two years later in June 2020. This was after an extensive design and planning process that resulted in a concept design that could not be built due to an estimated cost of $237-272.5 million — far above the budget.

This past June, the Career Center project was put back in the Board’s FY2022-24 CIP, but without the number of seats to be added and with funding listed as “TBD.”

How many additional high school seats are needed is a fundamental question and a moving target.

The CIP adopted this past June was based on enrollment this fall of 29,633 students, growing to more than 30,000 students by next fall, and peaking at more than 31,000 in the fall of 2024. But actual enrollment as of the first day of school this year was 26,932 students — 2,701 fewer students than projected.

How much money the School Board can spend on additional high school seats is another fundamental question.

This depends on how much revenue the county has because debt service — the amount of money the School Board spends to repay interest and principal on the bonds issued to pay for capital projects — is capped at not more than 10% of general expenditures.

Because of the limits on capital expenditures, the CIP involves making hard choices among competing needs to renovate existing buildings and add new seats in elementary, middle and high schools. Deciding how much to spend on the Career Center this fall, outside of the normal CIP process, risks not having sufficient funds for other projects when those are considered in the spring.

In its year-end report to the School Board in June, the Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) cautioned the Board not to rush the Career Center project and to include it in the next CIP, after considering a range of options. The FAC report notes the uncertainties in critical variables needed to make decisions, including enrollment and revenue projections as well as increasing construction costs during the pandemic.

The FAC is correct. The Board will not have the best available information on which to base decisions about the Career Center until this winter and spring, when it has updated enrollment projections, updated revenue projections and the list of other needed capital improvement projects. Doing so before then will add to the fraught history of Career Center planning.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with Project Peace, the Community Progress Network, and Second Chance.

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