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Advisory committee raises concerns about APS proposed capital budget

The School Board reviews the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee report at a work session (screenshot via Arlington County)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) An advisory group meant to guide facilities planning has several concerns with Arlington Public Schools’ proposed capital spending plan, namely the cost of a new Arlington Career Center.

APS would only be able to construct the Career Center by nearly maxing out its debt capacity, according to a Joint Facilities Advisory Committee report published June 7.

The county and APS cap debt repayments at 10% of their projected budgets. Under the School Board’s proposed CIP budget, the debt service is expected to remain around 9.8% from fiscal year 2027 to fiscal year 2032, according to JFAC’s report, leaving little wiggle room for maintenance projects and unforeseen needs.

At the same time, the CIP contains “discrepancies in the accounting for available bonding capacity for APS,” JFAC says.

The group Arlington Parents for Education explained in a newsletter today:

APS shares bond capacity with the county. This week, it was revealed that the county has a very different idea of how much APS has available in bond capacity; the County’s CIP has only $78 million in available bond capacity for APS. This is a discrepancy of $242 million.

“The main concern of JFAC is this CIP in the broader context all the known facility and infrastructure needs of APS and ACG,” JFAC’s chair and vice chair wrote in a recent letter. “It presently does not transparently demonstrate long-term financial viability for short term projects and expenditures or demonstrate that long-range planning processes for land use or capital projects have been fully considered.”

The lack of transparency “makes it harder for the public to recognize the planning commitments APS is making in this CIP,” the committee report stated.

However, APS believes it is being fiscally prudent.

“I don’t think we have anyone on this School Board or anyone on the staff is recommending that in the out years, we bump our CIP up to the maximum 9.8% target that we used to come up with that bonding capacity. It was just to show that there is room available in the out years for other projects that will come in those next CIPs,” said Assistant Superintendent Leslie Peterson during a work session reviewing the committee report.

The proposed CIP was also vague on the details of how the capital projects would be funded, the JFAC report said. The proposed budget did not set a specific amount of funding for long-range plans to renovate existing facilities, nor did it account for their cost estimates in setting its desired bond capacity, according to the report.

The School Board and county government projections for bond capacity are also at odds, with the School Board budgeting $242 million more than the county.

School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen said bond capacity may open up if the county — and, by extension, APS — receives more revenue than what was projected, allowing the board to carry out all the identified projects. If that doesn’t happen, the School Board would then discuss how to best handle new capital spending needs.

“If that’s the way it is, we’re gonna have that conversation then, there’s no pre-having that conversation,” she said.

The proposed CIP estimates the new Career Center building, which would be the most expensive project the school system has ever undertaken, would cost around $174 million. It would be funded by about $136 million from a 2022 bond referendum, as well as $37.4 million in past bond funding.

The JFAC report expressed concern at this decision since the School Board would be asking for a large sum of money at “a time of high inflation and financial uncertainty.”

A representative from the committee summarized the report to the School Board at a public hearing on the proposed CIP budget Monday evening. At the meeting, others — including Claire Noakes, President of the County Council of PTAs — raised concerns about the lack of specific estimated costs for the various projects included in the CIP.

Noakes gave examples of projects that may not get funded because of the priority given to the Career Center project, including fixing malfunctioning ventilation systems at Abingdon and Tuckahoe elementary schools and the lack of windows in classrooms at schools like Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

“We need the Career Center, but do we really need the biggest option there at the expense of all these other needs?” she asked.

Some speakers at the hearing supported other parts of the proposed budget. Parents from the Arlington Montessori Action Committee, made up of parents supporting the Montessori Public School of Arlington, supported a proposal to move MPSA into the existing Career Center building. The proposed budget estimated the cost of the move to be $15 million.

“Moving MPSA into the old Career Center building in the next CIP represents a true win-win-win for everyone involved,” AMAC Vice President of Communications Michael Bruno said during the hearing.

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