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The Montessori Public School of Arlington building is showing its age. Should it move to the nearby legacy Career Center site?

Montessori Public School of Arlington on opening day in 2019 (file photo)

(Updated at 12 p.m.) An elementary school has become the next flashpoint in discussions of how Arlington Public Schools should use its existing buildings.

Last year, the Nottingham Elementary School community was roiled by a potential plan to close the school and turn the building into a “swing space” to accommodate students whose home schools were under renovation.

Directed to explore this option by School Board members, APS officials ultimately walked back the proposal: Middle schools needed the most attention and their student populations would not fit at Nottingham. Plus, parent opposition was fierce.

The focus has now shifted to the Montessori Public School of Arlington (MPSA) and plans to relocate it to the current Arlington Career Center site once the new building is finished next door.

Once located within Drew Model School, MPSA moved into the former Patrick Henry Elementary space in 2019 as that school community moved into a new neighborhood school, Fleet Elementary. The Patrick Henry building, meanwhile, is now showing its age at 50 years old.

“We have issues around physical space and with the HVAC system. We have had classrooms that are uninhabitable at various parts of the year but we don’t have anywhere else to go,” Jamey Borell, president of the PTA, tells ARLnow. “They are trying to make do with space heaters and fans… Our Montessori community is very good at making do.”

Of the 20-odd classrooms, 14 do not meet current educational specifications, according to School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres, describing her recent visit to the school and discussing several issues, including corroding water heaters and a leaking roof.

“This building is falling apart at the seams. And if you walk through that building, it is very clear that… it was supposed to be temporary, and it should be temporary,” she said in a December School Board meeting.

Fellow parent Michael Bruno tells ARLnow the school community moved into Patrick Henry with this understanding, believing the MPSA would move into the legacy Arlington Career Center building after the new building is complete. Now, however, some attitudes have shifted.

Leaders from the County Council of PTAs and the Joint-Facility Advisory Committee, as well as two current and former School Board members, say this may not be the most financially sound course and more options should be explored. MPSA parents say APS should stick to its promise to move MPSA to the Career Center site and keep the program in South Arlington.

The diverging viewpoints emerged during public comments and a School Board discussion in December. In a rare split vote, members voted 3-2 to direct APS staff to explore and present low-, medium- and high-cost scenarios, not to exceed $45 million, for relocating MPSA into the Career Center building.

This means that staff will not explore other options off-campus as they develop the forthcoming 2025-34 Capital Improvement Plan, to be presented in May 2024. Building life span and use is top of mind for the School Board, which also directed Supt. Francisco Durán to include deep dive studies into how existing facilities should be renovated.

Current member Mary Kadera and now-former member Reid Goldstein voted against this direction.

“I really worry that our planning will be incomplete and short-sighted,” she said of the decision not to consider other locations for MPSA.

APS has to study additional scenarios, including how it could use some 1,000 open elementary seats around Arlington, if is going to be careful stewards of limited capital funds, she said. Current estimates put the cost of relocating MPSA to the Career Center at $39-45 million.

“[More study] might very well demonstrate that the best possible option is to house MPSA in the legacy building. I’m not arguing against that scenario,” Kadera said. “I am simply arguing that we owe it to the community to recognize our changing needs and circumstances and study the alternative.”

School community members say this move has long discussed — Career Center plans from 2020 do show MPSA still on-site — and has community support. The move was included in the approved 2023-32 Capital Improvement Plan and it was the plan when voters approved a bond referendum for the project and the Arlington County Board signed off on it.

“The plan was crafted to be a win-win-win compromise for all involved,” says parent Michael Bruno. “No one got everything they wanted, but each faction was satisfied.”

Changing course now could cause major disruptions and lead to unintended consequences, he said. The large on-site parking garage may no longer make sense without MPSA but removing it would jeopardize a concession to neighbors who had concerns about losing street parking.

“There are absolutely no plans to build another school in APS — none,” he continued. “That means the only alternative is MPSA would have to take over someone else’s building, like an under-enrolled Nottingham or Drew elementary school. But that would displace those communities, create ill will between locals who lost their neighborhood school and the incoming option school, and it would further crowd nearby neighborhood schools that have to take in the displaced students.”

“Why? For what gain?” Bruno said.

Skeptics point to the $39-45 million price tag and previous estimates saying this move “is the equivalent of a full-stand alone elementary school project and does not fit within the target budget.”

They also argue public engagement on the best use for the site was truncated: a 2018 report said the Career Center site should be a high school campus in the long term and that MPSA should relocate elsewhere. The Public Facilities Review Committee suggested in 2023 that discussions about long-term planning for the legacy site were curtailed because APS wanted to separate future planning for this site from the project to build a new Career Center.

“Decisions made on this site have a ripple effect on multiple large stakeholder groups among our member PTAs,” CCPTA President Claire Noakes said in a letter. “We believe that public engagement is imperative so that the community as a whole can discuss the various trade-offs and impacts.”

Joint Facilities Advisory Committee Chair Stacy Snyder tells ARLnow the fiscal outlook for the CIP has the tightest limits of any plan she has seen in her decade of involvement in APS facilities issues. Moving forward with the project in this environment, without knowing the final cost, is unwise, she says. Snyder wrote a letter to this effect to the School and County Board in November.

“JFAC supports that the reuse of the legacy ACC building and the relocation of MPSA be determined through a public process so that the solution is balanced with other priorities, fiscal constraints and tradeoffs are transparently considered,” Snyder wrote. “It will allow the opportunity for APS to ‘show their work’ and demonstrate that all options have been examined, a cost benefit analysis has been completed, and that the final decision is balanced with other priorities and fiscal constraints.”

Acknowledging the Nottingham saga left many reluctant to utter the words “swing space,” Kadera said it should not be off the table. Were ACC to become a swing space, she said, it could shorten construction timelines and save money on other renovation projects.

Bruno, the MPSA parent, contends swing spaces were intended to solve a different problem: too many seats and too few students in elementary schools north of Route 50. South Arlington has the opposite problem, one that he says MPSA alleviates because 70% of its students come from South Arlington. Moving MPSA could dissuade people from going there and result in a return to overcrowded schools.

After looking at enrollment data for option programs that recently relocated, Kadera said she found no evidence that location changes have this effect among South Arlington families.

Diaz-Torres argues the legacy building will meet the needs of the moment.

“In 2026, we will have an empty building… that can handle buses and that we need to make meet our educational specifications for that particular program,” she said. “Here is a moment where we need to do less and obsess over getting it right.”

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