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

On Nov. 16, County planning staff briefed the County Board on Phase I of the Missing Middle Housing Study.

Prior to the pandemic, County planners asserted that up-zoning to enable new Missing Middle (“MM”) housing would be a major contributor to ease Arlington’s affordable housing crisis.

But by the time Phase I was launched, the County had been forced by cascades of data to abandon this false claim.

Misappropriating the language of civil rights advocates, County planners’ latest rationale is that up-zoning to enable MM housing is necessary to provide diversity of building types in certain neighborhoods, noting for example that each of two new $900,000 duplexes is more “affordable” than a $1.6M single-family house that might otherwise occupy the same lot.

As a leader of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), I reject the notion that County planners’ preferences for more luxury buildings in certain neighborhoods deserves much weight compared to the preferences of the residents who live there now.

Prominent Arlington activist Suzanne Smith Sundburg points out that if more density were the key to affordable housing, more densely populated places like New York City would be more affordable than Arlington.

Arlington lacks adequate infrastructure and environmental plans for its current zoning

Arlington forecasts a total population of 301,200 in 2045 compared to 234,200 residents in 2021. These additional 67,000 residents are coming to Arlington under current zoning. Can Arlington’s infrastructure and environment sustain them?

For starters, where, exactly, are we going to put the new school facilities that will be required? In November 2019, the County Manager sent a letter to the acting APS superintendent offering County properties — including parks — to be turned into school properties. But those same parks are needed to support the park and recreational needs of these new residents. The Manager’s awkward overture reveals that the County has not planned adequately for either additional school capacity or additional parks.

Moreover, we regularly see water and sewage pipeline breaks in our old systems. Infrastructure problems are acute in many other areas, including flooding, power failures, building integrity, tree maintenance and protection, bridges and competition for parking spaces as population increases.

The County and APS have failed to adopt an internally consistent plan for all major public facilities, i.e., a Public Facilities Master Plan, despite the fact that six years have passed since the 2015 recommendation of the Community Facilities Study Group that such a Master Plan was critical to Arlington’s future. Many potential sites for important public facilities have been lost permanently to private development during those six years of dithering.

Generational transformation

Arlington County has not quantified the full costs of critical capital expenses that will have to be incurred as our population increases. In fact, the Manager told the County Board in his message of Nov. 12, 2020: “[G]iven that we are undergoing a generational transformation in how we provide services and use facilities, this is the wrong time” to support a proposal from the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission for long-range planning.

How then can this be the right time for an action like major MM up-zoning that could have a huge, irreversible, net-negative impact on Arlington’s future?

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

This month, Virginia announced that school divisions can apply for “Onward Upward Virginia” grants to support literacy and math, “with targeted support for learners most impacted by pandemic disruptions, including students with disabilities, English learners, students who are economically disadvantaged, early learners, and those who are underperforming.”

The announcement of this grant shows that the State of Virginia continues to acknowledge the scope and magnitude of the effect of school closures:

“Virginia’s 2020-2021 SOL test scores tell us what we already knew–students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively. The connections, structures, and supports our school communities provide are irreplaceable, and many students did not have access to in person instruction for the full academic year. We must now focus on unfinished learning and acceleration to mitigate the impact the pandemic has had on student results.”

APS lacks a system-wide, resourced plan to address learning losses

To date, APS has barely acknowledged the directive from Virginia to “focus on unfinished learning and acceleration,” nor is there a system-wide, resourced plan to address learning losses. Superintendent Francisco Durán recently shared via School Talk that interventions will rely heavily on iPad apps Dreambox and Lexia along with targeted small group instruction (a tall order for overworked teachers who are already leading larger classes than in recent years). More is needed.

VDOE data reveal the pressing nature of the problem and how it falls disproportionately on certain schools. In particular, across APS neighborhood elementary schools that are over 50% economically disadvantaged, math scores dropped by an average of 42 points and 60% or more of students failed the math SOL. Science scores fell by an average of 55 points, and reading scores by an average of 20 points (apples to oranges, as Virginia lowered the minimum reading pass rate last year).

These schools already reported generally lower scores than non-economically disadvantaged schools. With the impact of the pandemic, these student scores are a crisis.

Learning loss recovery should be front and center, and should feature such evidence-based interventions as intensified tutoring and comprehensive after-school and extended school year programs. Will APS apply for an Onward Upward grant? If so, what will it ask for?

Why and whither virtual?

Amidst these grim results of virtual learning, APS continues to signal a possible permanent place for virtual school. In March, APS officials suggested that a permanent virtual learning program be located on one floor of the Ed Center. Last month, the widespread problems with VLP were referred to as “growing pains” that APS was “working diligently” to avoid repeating.

The best way to avoid repetition is to strictly limit participation, if APS offers virtual learning at all. Even before the experience of this past year, researchers were skeptical about the effectiveness of virtual education. Permanent virtual learning also lacks scale; this year’s VLP hired teachers for every grade level, even though many grades have very few students. For example, at the high school level, of the 90 classes taught by 25 APS teachers, they are on average only 35% full, with an average class size of only 9 students. This is a misallocation of resources when brick and mortar schools have had to increase class sizes due to budget constraints. In Virginia, virtual programming duplicates something that already exists at the state level.

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

Even prior to COVID-19, APS students’ reading proficiency had been on the decline–a problem which Superintendent Francisco Durán has acknowledged.

However, the current pace of action is both too slow and too narrow. The past year’s results demonstrate why APS must act urgently to enable our students to catch up, both in literacy and also in math.

Former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton recently stated: “Was there learning loss? Absolutely. And that means we all need to pull up our sleeves and lock arms and work together.” APS should heed her call, and move swiftly to dedicate appropriate resources, including structured literacy materials and appropriate math textbooks, now.

Balanced literacy is a bust, but what’s next and when?

Studies show that when students do not learn to read proficiently, they are at increased risk for dropping out as well as suffering lifelong adverse consequences, including mental health challenges, unemployment, and incarceration.

Last spring, APS’s Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning’s English Language Arts Advisory Committee (ELAAC) wrote to the School Board that “APS is facing a literacy crisis.” ELAAC’s #1 recommendation (seconded by the Early Childhood Advisory Committee) was to “immediately halt” the “balanced literacy” approach, and adopt new resources aligning with the science of reading. Recognizing that procurement takes time and money, ELAAC also suggested “significant professional learning in structured literacy as a ‘stop gap’ until a new resource is adopted.”

To date, APS has removed balanced literacy materials from grades K-2 for reading only (not for grades 3-5 or writing) and over 500 teachers have received training in structured literacy. This is a great start, in particular because third grade is a key inflection point for literacy. However, this year’s third graders’ last normal year was kindergarten, and last year’s third graders saw the most significant reading declines.

Otherwise, APS has not committed to an urgent timeline or a dedicated plan for adopting the needed literacy resources. APS’s final 2021-22 budget (pp. 50-51) — which notes that APS initially adopted balanced literacy over the objections of parents and advocates–includes funding over four years (FY 2022-2025) totaling just $1 million. Four years is too long, and APS should use its one-time federal infusion of $18.9 million on new literacy and writing resources and professional development for teachers, now that it has acknowledged it will expend “far less” on the poorly-executed Virtual Learning Program.

Digital devices don’t deliver on math

APS has not had a math textbook adoption in over a decade, even though Virginia expects textbook renewal to take place every six years. What we saw during the pandemic only underscores the importance of textbooks: students wasted time navigating myriad websites, digital materials, and software programs, and struggled to keep track of assignments. This is not only wasteful but impedes learning. It is harder to revisit concepts in this format than to review an indexed textbook. APS’s Math Advisory Committee found that teachers did not enjoy creating a patchwork of materials either. They thought they were “forced to reinvent the wheel.”

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

Our experiences with COVID-19 and flash flooding have taught us that all Arlington policies should be implemented based on the best data. This is certainly true for Arlington’s environmental policies.

An excellent demonstration of how to implement environmental policy based on the best data appears in a March 2021 presentation delivered to the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed) by Karen Firehock, Executive Director of Richmond’s Green Infrastructure Center (GIC).

Mature tree canopy

Firehock stressed (Slide 8) the critical importance of every locality’s mature tree canopy:

  • Trees give us cleaner air, shade, beauty and stormwater benefits at a far cheaper cost than engineered systems
  • A typical street tree can intercept anywhere from 760 gallons to 4,000 gallons per tree, depending on the species

In addition, Firehock reviewed (Slides 12-16) the beneficial effects of mature trees in combatting the serious health risks posed by urban heat islands, and discussed (Slide 15) how mature trees could alleviate these risks in Arlington.

Firehock also explained (Slides 18-30) how to use the best scientific data, including GIC’s stormwater calculator (Slides 27-28), to deploy mature trees and other green techniques to slow or reverse the devastating flooding impacts of overdevelopment and climate change.

Civic Federation resolution

Based on Ms. Firehock’s presentation, Civ Fed adopted a resolution requesting “immediate action by the County to prepare an updated, comprehensive tree canopy and natural resources study that provides detailed information on relevant land cover categories.”

Among the resolution’s key points:

  • Arlington County’s data on our existing tree canopy are obsolete
  • The county also lacks analytical capabilities that comparable neighboring jurisdictions possess
  • The analytical capabilities Arlington lacks are nationally recognized as requirements for effective planning for green and stormwater infrastructure
  • Arlington County should prepare an updated, comprehensive tree canopy and natural resources study
  • The updated study should be used as a resource for future stormwater planning and other county programs and can be completed in two to three months at a low cost

Strong commission support

Arlington’s Forestry and Natural Resources Commission (FNRC) strongly supports the strategic importance of performing a new Arlington mature tree canopy study.

In a June 2021 letter to the County Board, the FNRC persuasively explained why a new tree canopy survey is necessary to implement new policies to redress social inequities. Historically disadvantaged communities tend to be those with fewer trees and green spaces — and thus fewer benefits (lowered air pollution, improved health).

FNRC underscored the need to pinpoint those areas of the county with the greatest tree deficits, along with those with the greatest tree losses, in order to improve the county’s natural environment for all. Some neighborhoods have seen their tree canopy coverage drop by double-digit percentages — up to 20%.

FNRC stressed the urgency of measuring precisely the current extent of Arlington’s urban forest, pinpointing those areas and neighborhoods that are suffering from a lack of trees or from accelerating losses.

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

As ARLnow reported, APS unveiled plummeting 2020-2021 SOL test scores just days before the academic year began. Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction concluded that Virginia’s SOLs “tell us… students need to be in the classroom without disruption to learn effectively.”

A recent survey of superintendents shows that many other school districts are providing additional in-person instructional time and/or intensified tutoring to address learning loss. Meanwhile, APS initially hailed its Virtual Learning Program (VLP) as one of APS’s “bright spots,” after teasing the possibility earlier this year of permanent virtual programming for secondary students. VLP saw a botched roll-out.

SOLs are part of a puzzle with missing pieces

Arlington’s SOL pass rates declined 21 points in math and over five points in reading. This is an undeniable educational crisis. The reality might be worse than the scores show. It’s reasonable to assume those most likely to pass were most likely to take SOLs. The smaller drop in reading scores misleads. Last November, the State Board of Education adopted a motion advocated by Arlington’s own Superintendent to lower the minimum pass rates for reading.

The inherent limitations of SOLs are well-known, but they are the only reliable state-wide longitudinal gauge of where Arlington’s children are relative to their peers and to previous years’ learning.

Long-standing achievement gaps widen

A year of missed learning substantially widened the long-standing APS equity gap. Closing it must be central to addressing system-wide losses. Regrettably, the Aug. 26 School Board presentation buried the comparison of minority vs. white student performance within the last two slides of a 70-page deck: declines in passing rates of 12 points among Hispanic students and 10 points among Black students in reading, 35 points among Hispanic students and 30 points among Black students in math. The corresponding declines among white students are three points in reading, 13 points in math.

Minority parent voices should be given their deserved greatest weight as the entire Arlington community seeks common ground to produce major and lasting system-wide improvements.

VLP’s disastrous launch and subpar effectiveness

Despite a nationwide consensus that the vast majority of students learn best in person, APS chose to allocate to VLP the majority — at least $11 million — of its federal American Rescue Plan funds. Yet VLP’s first week was marked by reports of students without schedules or stuck interminably in “waiting rooms,” while 42 of VLP’s teaching slots were unfilled on the first day.

Although VLP has improved since its disastrous launch, this school year must be VLP’s last. APS should strictly limit participation in any future virtual program by adopting criteria similar to those Fairfax, and even the nation’s largest school district, have adopted.

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

Arlington County government should increase substantially the amount of Arlington taxpayer dollars devoted to providing housing for our lowest income Arlington households — those living on 30% or less of Area Median Income (AMI).

The most fiscally responsible way to fund this increase is first to redirect taxpayer dollars that currently are used to provide housing subsidies for those at the highest AMI levels.

Arlington housing trends by income levels

A 2020 Housing Needs Analysis shows far too few housing units available for our most needy Arlington residents.

The supply of rental units available to those households living on 30% or less of AMI, or $37,800 for a family of four in 2020, was far outstripped by the number of households seeking such units. (Updated data show that 2021 AMI in Arlington is now $129,000.)

The 2020 Housing Needs Analysis established that from 2012 to 2018, there was a significant decline in the number of these low-income rental households–from 9,067 to 8,077. By contrast, the number of households in the highest income categories (100% of AMI and above) increased from 27,667 to 30,955.

Many members of Arlington’s lowest-income households work multiple jobs such as hospital aides, office cleaners, and construction and food service employees. They play a vital part in our economic success and provide our diverse community fabric.

These residents are all just one emergency away from job loss or eviction. The statistical trends discussed above document the steady displacement of Arlington’s lowest-income households.

We have a moral obligation to assign the highest priority to stabilize these lowest-income families and putting them in the position to contribute to the social and cultural fabric of our community as both residents and employees.

Arlington Community Foundation (ACF), in collaboration with the national Shared Prosperity Partnership, has been a leader in advocating for our community to take bold steps to prevent the involuntary displacement of our lowest-income renters. We should support this ACF initiative with a substantial increase in taxpayer funding.

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

Over the past 18 months — due to the pandemic — the majority of APS students, particularly minority populations and those with disabilities, have suffered severe learning losses.

APS must adopt a bold plan to remediate these losses which can be instructional, emotional, or mental. The appropriate remedies should also address various shortcomings — whether instructional or administrative — that preceded Covid-19.

Some community members are sensitive to using phrases like “learning losses.” They believe using terms like these will generate further feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness among APS students, or slight our very hardworking teachers. But there are far greater risks than semantics if our Arlington community fails openly to acknowledge this severe problem. Before Covid-19, we talked candidly about the “summer slide.” Post-pandemic learning deficits are far more serious.

Statistical information demonstrates that learning losses are severe

Virginia’s 2021 PALS, which annually identifies students at risk for reading difficulties, revealed the largest group of high-risk students ever in the assessment’s history. The PALS data also indicate that Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and English-language learners were disproportionately in the high-risk category.

APS’s own earlier statistics at the elementary, middle and high school levels previewed this: “Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are experiencing the deepest drops.”

These are major problems that cry out for bold solutions.

APS’s flip-flops, silence compounds the harm

To date, APS has been reluctant to discuss these problems or propose solutions. Shortly after saying he was “very concerned” about learning losses, Superintendent Francisco Durán played down even their existence, and then just days ago, made not one mention of this in a 69-slide presentation to APS administrators kicking off the school year. These about-faces are damaging and wrong; the scant published information on how APS will address recovery is at best cursory.

Federal funding was awarded to APS specifically to remediate the impact of lost instructional time. Instead of taking full advantage of these resources using proven superior methods to identify students who need extra help catching up academically, socially and emotionally (as the Secretary of Education has called for), APS has designated the majority of its American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP/ESSER) funds — $11 million — for the creation of a virtual option for the 2021-22 school year. This virtual academy is slated to serve less than 1,000 (or 3%) of students. Sadly, only about $1 million will go toward hiring elementary reading and math coaches — and these funds are only to be spent at schools that are either Title I or have over 650 students. These precious federal resources are being misallocated to a tiny subset of students without any comprehensive, targeted effort to identify the likely many who, after last year, are at risk for academic struggles if not already struggling.

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

It’s long past time to get big money out of our politics in Virginia.

During her 2020 Presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren explained why we need robust campaign finance reform: “[B]efore the legislative process even starts — lobbyists and billionaires try to buy off politicians during elections. Candidates and elected officials often spend hours and hours a day doing call time with big donors, instead of learning about policy and working for their constituents.”

Our political process continues to be eroded by the corrosive role of big money and the impact of pay-to-play practices on our public policies.

While “much of this corruption of our representative democracy is perfectly legal,” some states have done a much better job than others in curbing the influence of big money.

Sadly, Virginia has done a much worse job.

Virginia has failed to strengthen its weak campaign finance system

Virginia’s track record on campaign finance reform is poor. The 2021 Virginia legislative session was no exception. A very modest reform bill died near the end of that session:

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who carried the bill — which passed the House of Delegates 100-0 — said he was “obviously disappointed [the Senate] couldn’t find a way to live under the same rules as the federal government and at least 47 other states.” He had told the Associated Press, when it looked like a breakthrough was possible, that it was his eighth year sponsoring the bill.

Virginia has the dubious distinction of being one of only a tiny handful of states with no campaign contribution limits.

Virginia ranks worse than all but five other states on the Coalition for Integrity’s S.W.A.M.P. index. Virginia needs to lower substantially the water level in this swamp.

2021 Governor’s race exposes the weaknesses in Virginia’s campaign finance laws

The current election for Virginia Governor already has been negatively distorted by the weaknesses in Virginia’s campaign finance laws. An extremely wealthy Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, is fulfilling his promise to spend whatever he thinks it takes to win, forcing his Democratic opponent, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, to spend almost all of his campaign so far raising lots of money and pleading for more.

Predictably, the media’s campaign coverage has concentrated on their money race not their policy differences. This focus adds to the corrosive effect Elizabeth Warren described. Even if there’s a subsequent shift to greater coverage of policy differences, each of these candidates will be unduly influenced by the big money already raised.

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

One in five adults in the United States experiences a mental illness or mental health crisis every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages ten to thirty-four.

Arlington is not exempt. Virginia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services estimates any as one in twenty Arlington County adults have a serious mental illness in which their symptoms seriously impair adult functioning.

Treatment works — if you can get it — but too often mental health care is in short supply or inadequate.

Psychiatric bed supply

There is a shortage of available beds in Virginia’s state hospitals and the psychiatric units of other hospitals statewide. The bed shortage in state hospitals is documented here. The state hospitals’ mandated role is to provide a bed of last resort in times of crisis when no beds are available in private hospitals. State hospitals currently are unable to fulfill their mandated role.

A less known fact is the shortage of psychiatric beds in private hospitals, such as Virginia Hospital Center (VHC). This in turn exacerbates the shortage of beds in state psychiatric hospitals. For many Arlingtonians in crisis — particularly those with suicidal tendencies, VHC is the first place to look for help, and too often there is simply no bed available.

This critical supply problem is finally being addressed as part of VHC’s current $250 million expansion. Public outcry following VHC’s initial decision not to seek additional beds for its psychiatric unit has developed into a landmark partnership.

In 2018, an agreement was reached among a group including VHC, Arlington County government leaders, mental health advocates, and the Arlington Community Services Board. The agreement gave VHC access to a county-owned land parcel adjacent to VHC. In the agreement, VHC committed to specific improvements in its psychiatric services and to regular planning meetings.

So far, this process has worked effectively.

The first concrete step forward came this June. An analysis based on the number of people who did not get a VHC psychiatric bed provided a conservative estimate of the total number of beds needed. The group notified the County Manager that VHC will apply to the state for 16 new beds to add to the current 18 bed unit.

This substantial increase in the number of beds is critical to meet the mental health needs of Arlington County’s growing population and to meet VHC’s goal of increased single beds. The increase will reduce the number of patients in mental health crisis desperate for care who must go out of the region, far away from their supportive network of family and friends.

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

On May 5, 2021, APS abruptly cancelled its Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Class. APS has failed the children in the Communication Class by not arranging an adequate alternative.

What the AAC Communication Class offered

APS’s AAC Communication Class developed over many years to address the severe challenges that certain students have learning to communicate. A variety of conditions can result in such severe difficulties speaking or writing that these conditions cannot be addressed without the special adaptive supports that the Communication Class provides (pp. 21-23). For Pre-K-2 students, APS had assembled a trained teaching staff at Fleet Elementary to meet countywide Communication Class needs.

There are over 150 APS kids who are not able to rely on speech to be understood. Still, most of us probably have never met someone who speaks using AAC. The AAC technology and multi-modality tools help students with various disabilities to hone language and get their wants, thoughts, and needs across to everyone.

AAC device acquisition and mastery is challenging. Only 72 of those 150 APS students are using high tech devices that are capable of interfacing with computers, phones, calculators etc. Teachers and parents have a big learning curve, so early learners have double, sometimes triple, that learning curve.

The COVID-19 pandemic created multiple barriers for these vulnerable learners to access their speech therapists and hone their communication skills, literacy skills, and language system — if they were fortunate enough to have been evaluated by APS prior to the pandemic.

Why APS’s alternative AAC proposal is inadequate

Without prior explanation of the reasons or the timing, APS suddenly declared publicly on May 5 that all these AAC students’ needs will be met at their separate individual neighborhood elementary schools beginning with the Fall 2021 semester. There are both instructional and procedural reasons why APS’s decision was very wrong and needs to be changed.

Instructional problems

APS can’t push these children into a General Education classroom until these students have learned how to communicate. The Fleet Communication Class was one of several special education countywide programs providing children with specially-designed instruction with staff that have knowledge and skills specific to their individual disabilities,” using one speech-language pathologist (SLP) supporting 2-12 children; one special education teacher for six students, and two aides to help that teacher. AAC students at Fleet greatly benefited from mutual AAC student peer reinforcement.

At APS neighborhood elementary schools, every other SLP currently has a 55-student caseload, and 28 students per class are expected in 2021-2022. APS doesn’t seem to know or care how it will replace these AAC services countywide.

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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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