Superintendent Pitches Class Size Increases in New APS Budget, Presses County For More Cash

(Updated at 10 a.m.) Arlington schools will likely face class size increases and could see some staff layoffs next year under terms laid out in Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year.

Murphy delivered his first draft of a new spending plan for fiscal year 2020 to the School Board last night (Thursday), arguing that even the tax increases proposed by the County Board won’t be enough to help the school system avoid some spending cuts. The school system is preparing to open three new schools next year to cope with persistently rising enrollment levels, which Murphy expects will create another challenging budget year for county schools.

Much like the county government’s own financial picture, sketched out in earnest by County Manager Mark Schwartz late last week, Arlington Public Schools’ budget picture is still a bit more promising than it appeared this fall. School officials initially warned that they could be facing a $43 million budget gap next year, a deficit that Murphy says could’ve been the largest one for APS in the last 30 years, if not the school system’s history.

However, rising real estate assessments filled county coffers a bit more than officials anticipated, easing some concerns. And Murphy was glad to see, too, that Schwartz proposed 1.5-cent real estate tax increase largely designed to meet school needs, and the superintendent built his budget using that increase as a base.

But even if the County Board approves that tax hike, Murphy says the school system will face cuts. He built a series of spending trims into his plans, most notably the reduction of 23 staff positions, bumping up class sizes slightly.

“It’s a tough year, there’s a lot of things happening,” Murphy told a group of reporters and school leaders in a budget briefing Thursday. “But given where we are and the things that are happening, I thought that was prudent.”

Plans call for grades four through five seeing the largest increase of an estimated one student per class. Middle schools will see a .75 pupil per class increase, and high schools will see a .5 student per class increase.

The School Board narrowly avoided that outcome last year, thanks largely to some one-time funding from the county. But Murphy says he fully expects the county’s own money troubles, driven by a still-high office vacancy rate and rising Metro expenses, means that the school system might not be so lucky this time around.

The proposed cuts total about $10.1 million in all. That will include moving $5.28 million in one-time money to cover construction and maintenance funding, rather than using ongoing funds.

Murphy says he may need to make another $8.9 million in cuts to balance the budget, if the County Board doesn’t approve a tax increase over and above Schwartz’s proposal. He did not say, however, just how of large of a tax hike would meet the school system’s needs.

The Board signed off on advertising a 2.75-cent increase last weekend, setting the ceiling for any potential tax rate it may adopt throughout the budget process. Officials can always lower the rate beyond the one advertised, but can’t raise it.

Board members agreed to that higher rate largely over concerns that schools would need more cash, and Murphy says those concerns were well founded. Without more cash from the county, Murphy expects that cuts to APS central office staff would be necessary, in addition to some transportation and benefit changes, the introduction of new and increased fees and delays to student support programs.

“I hope we don’t have to go there,” Murphy said.

And should the Board decline to raise taxes at all, rejecting Schwartz’s proposed increase, Murphy says he’ll need to make an additional $11.1 in cuts, prompting even more layoffs. However, he said he’s “optimistic” that the Board will avoid that outcome.

Depending on the county’s budget, Murphy also warned that the school system could tinker with its plans for bumping up employee pay rates this year.

Currently, Murphy hopes to order a fifth straight “step increase,” moving eligible employees up the school system’s pay scale commensurate with experience. But he also wants to follow through on long-held plans to raise pay for instructional assistants, bus drivers and bus attendants, arguing that the changes are necessary to keep APS “competitive in the region.”

“It’s a competitive environment out there,” Murphy said.

Those changes will cost APS $12.9 million in all, though Murphy cautioned that “whether we build in that direction this year, or build there in the future” will be dependent on how much money the county sends the school system.

One budget line that will remain unchanged, Murphy says, is the $10.1 million the school system will spend to afford both one-time and ongoing costs associated with opening three new schools next year and repurposing two others.

Alice West Fleet Elementary, Dororthy Hamm Middle and The Heights Building (housing the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs) will all open next year. APS will also move the Montessori program currently at Drew Model School into its own building (formerly Patrick Henry Elementary) and convert Drew into a full neighborhood school.

APS will also need to keep up with an expected enrollment bump of about 1,059 students next year, roughly the same level of enrollment growth the school system has seen over the last decade. That will require about $8.73 million in spending to manage, and the addition of 83 employees.

“There’s a very clear reason we’re in this situation: more families are moving here, more businesses are moving here,” Murphy said. “We must be doing something right.”

The County and School Boards will now spend the next several weeks debating their competing budgets.

The School Board will finalize its proposed budget to send on to the county by April 11, then the County Board will pass its budget by the end of the month. The School Board will then adopt its final budget by May 9.

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UPDATED: APS Closes Amid Light Snow

Update at 10:30 a.m. — Arlington Public Schools are closed today due to wintry weather. While grassy areas were snow-covered this morning, streets and sidewalks were mostly wet, with some slippery spots.

Earlier: Arlington and much of the region is under a Winter Weather Advisory tonight and Friday morning.

Snow and sleet is in the forecast overnight, though how much accumulates, and whether it disrupts the morning commute, remains uncertain. Still, Arlington Public Schools made the call to open on a two hour delay Friday.

From the National Weather Service:

…WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 10 PM THIS EVENING TO 10 AM EST FRIDAY… * WHAT…SNOW AND SLEET EXPECTED. TOTAL SNOW AND SLEET ACCUMULATIONS OF 1 TO 3 INCHES EXPECTED. * WHERE…THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PORTIONS OF CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN MARYLAND AND NORTHERN AND NORTHWEST VIRGINIA. * WHEN…FROM 10 PM THIS EVENING TO 10 AM EST FRIDAY. A BRIEF PERIOD OF MODERATE TO HEAVY SNOW MAY OCCUR BETWEEN 2 AM AND 6 AM. * ADDITIONAL DETAILS…PLAN ON SLIPPERY ROAD CONDITIONS. THE HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS COULD IMPACT THE MORNING COMMUTE. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS… A WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY MEANS THAT PERIODS OF SNOW, SLEET OR FREEZING RAIN WILL CAUSE TRAVEL DIFFICULTIES. EXPECT SLIPPERY ROADS AND LIMITED VISIBILITIES, AND USE CAUTION WHILE DRIVING. WHEN VENTURING OUTSIDE, WATCH YOUR FIRST FEW STEPS TAKEN ON STEPS, SIDEWALKS, AND DRIVEWAYS, WHICH COULD BE ICY AND SLIPPERY, INCREASING YOUR RISK OF A FALL AND INJURY. &&

Both VDOT and Arlington County have been pre-treating roads ahead of the storm, but VDOT cautions that roads may be slick Friday.

“VDOT asks that drivers be alert for up to several inches of snow and sleet that will impact roads tonight through Friday morning,” the agency said. “Drivers are asked to prepare now for impacts to the morning rush hour. Crews will begin staging along roads tonight.”

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APS Switches Up ‘Extended Day’ Registration Process, Following Repeated Technical Glitches

Arlington school officials are planning some major changes to how parents register for the “Extended Day” program, following a variety of technical snafus with sign-ups over the last few years.

Parents looking to enroll their kids in the program, which provides low-cost before and after school care for students, will now be able to submit applications from April 1-May 15 each year.

If schools have enough room, anyone who applied before the May 15 deadline will earn a spot in the daycare service. At schools that receive more applications than they have “Extended Day” slots available, however, applicants will be entered into a “random, double blind lottery” to sort out who earns a spot in the program.

That represents a distinct change from the school system’s old process, which opened up registration on an online portal at a set time (often late at night), and only accepted applicants on a first-come, first-served basis.

That prompted parents to race to register all at once, resulting in a series of system crashes the last few years. Just last year, frustrated parents raced to the school system’s offices in an attempt to register in person, as the technical glitches persisted.

“We understand that the stress of being online early to register was a major imposition for many families and often led to system ‘crashes’ because so many people tried to access the system at the same time,” APS staff wrote in an online announcement explaining the “Extended Day” changes. “This new process will allow everyone to register anytime within the six-week period and all will now have the same opportunity for enrollment.”

School officials wrote that the program saw a substantial increase in enrollment over the last decade — growing from “about 2,600 to over 4,300” students — which they believe contributed to some of the school system’s technical glitches.

APS staff hope this new process means that “all families will have the same opportunity to register, regardless of the time registration opens, access to computers, work schedules and other extenuating factors.”

Officials stressed that no decisions about “Extended Day” enrollment will be made until after May 15 under this new system, and any child who misses out on a spot in a lottery process will be placed on a waitlist. The school system noted that nine elementary schools (Abingdon, Arlington Science Focus, Ashlawn, Claremont, Glebe, Henry, Key, McKinley and Tuckahoe) have reached capacity for the program in the past, making them likely spots for lotteries.

School officials also urge any parents applying for an option school to wait until those results are released on May 1 before applying for “Extended Day” inclusion.

The new process has already irked at least one parent, who told ARLnow that they’re concerned that the school system has created “an entirely new registration process, without a public discussion.”

“If you are going to run a true lottery process, as they seem intent on doing, they need to conclude it much earlier than May 15, so families have an opportunity to make other arrangements if they don’t get lucky,” the parent wrote in an email, declining to give their name.

The school system’s “Extended Day” webpage says that APS plans to post additional information on the new registration process on Monday (March 4).

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APS Moving Trailers to Career Center, Could Take Over Columbia Pike Library As Enrollment Swells

With more than 150 new students set to attend classes at the Arlington Career Center in the coming school year, officials are now scrambling to free up some extra classroom space at the facility.

The county school system now plans to move eight trailers over from the adjacent Patrick Henry Elementary School to free up room for those students in the 2019-2020 school year. Career Center Principal Margaret Chung informed parents of the move in an email Monday (Feb. 25) that was subsequently obtained by ARLnow.

Chung wrote that school leaders initially hoped instead to move students into the second floor of the Columbia Pike Branch Library space, which is located in the Career Center. But county officials rejected that request, prompting the reliance on the so-called “relocatable classrooms” instead.

“To accommodate our expected growth next year and beyond, we have had to identify space for the additional students,” Chung wrote.

The downside of that move is that the trailers will take up some space currently used for the Career Center’s Animal Science program.

The program includes classes focused on animal care and veterinary science, with a variety of animals housed at the site for students to study. Chung expects that the trailers will take up the space currently set aside for three grazing animals — APS spokesman Frank Bellavia says that includes two goats and a miniature pony — forcing the Career Center to “reimagine that program for a more urban setting.”

“This does not mean that we are discontinuing our focus on animal sciences,” Chung wrote. “We will continue to maintain the smaller animals onsite for learning and instruction.”

She added that her staff has “begun to explore options to find a new home” for the animals that need to move, with the goal having them settled by the time the new trailers are in place this summer. That’s also when the school system will move the Montessori program currently housed at Drew Model School into the Henry building.

But with demand for the Career Center’s programs anticipated to only keep growing in the coming years, and the planned expansion of the building to accommodate more high schoolers still years away, Bellavia says the new trailers won’t solve all the building’s space limitations.

Accordingly, APS officials plan to ask the county for permission to use both the first and second floor of the library as instructional space, Bellavia said, with the goal of having it available for students in time for the 2020-2021 school year.

It’s a move that “comes as a surprise” to Kristi Sawert, the president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and a member of working group that spent months studying the planned expansion and renovation of the Career Center.

Eventually, the school system plans to build room for another 1,050 high schoolers at the facility. But the process of doing so has been a thorny one, with Sawert and other local parents pressing the school system to add a full suite of amenities at the site to make it equivalent to the county’s other comprehensive high schools.

Still, Sawert says that the need to take up the library space for the new students was “never mentioned” during the working group’s deliberations, some of which included the library’s future. The group suggested that the county could ultimately buy up some properties near the Career Center and use that land for a stand-alone library.

“We were told repeatedly during the [working group’s meetings] that internal modifications to the Career Center would accommodate the incoming class of 150 students,” Sawert wrote in an email to concerned neighbors she provided to ARLnow.

Roughly nine years ago, the county kicked off a firestorm of controversy when it proposed shuttering the Pike library and moving its offerings to the Arlington Mill Community Center. The branch has been located at the facility since moving there in 1975.

While moving students into the library space (and the changes to the animal science program) may end up ruffling a few feathers, Chung chose to paint the impending changes as indicative of the demand for the center’s programs.

“We are so pleased to see the excitement and interest in our programs, and it is extremely rewarding to know that more and more students and families want to be part of the opportunities that our programs provide,” she wrote.

Photo 2 via @APS_AnimalSci

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JUST IN: APS Closed Wednesday Due to Snow

(Updated at 5:20 p.m.) Arlington Public Schools will be closed Wednesday due to expected snow and ice.

The school system made the call at 5 p.m. Tuesday, shortly after a similar announcement from Fairfax County Public Schools.

Arlington’s Marymount University will also be closed.

Arlington and the region is under a Winter Storm Warning for Wednesday, with 3-6 inches of snow expected. From the National Weather Service:

…WINTER STORM WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 1 AM TO 7 PM EST WEDNESDAY… * WHAT…HEAVY MIXED PRECIPITATION EXPECTED. TOTAL SNOW ACCUMULATIONS OF 3 TO 6 INCHES AND ICE ACCUMULATIONS OF UP TO ONE TENTH OF AN INCH EXPECTED. * WHERE…THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA AND PORTIONS OF CENTRAL MARYLAND AND CENTRAL AND NORTHERN VIRGINIA. * WHEN…FROM 1 AM TO 7 PM EST WEDNESDAY. SNOW WILL OVERSPREAD THE AREA EARLY WEDNESDAY MORNING AND MIX WITH AND CHANGE TO SLEET AND FREEZING RAIN DURING THE LATE MORNING AND EARLY AFTERNOON HOURS WEDNESDAY. PRECIPITATION WILL CHANGE TO PLAIN RAIN WEDNESDAY EVENING. THE HEAVIEST SNOW IS LIKELY WEDNESDAY MORNING. * ADDITIONAL DETAILS…TRAVEL COULD BE VERY DIFFICULT. THE HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS COULD IMPACT THE MORNING OR EVENING COMMUTE. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS… A WINTER STORM WARNING MEANS SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF SNOW, SLEET AND ICE WILL MAKE TRAVEL VERY HAZARDOUS OR IMPOSSIBLE. WHEN VENTURING OUTSIDE, WATCH YOUR FIRST FEW STEPS TAKEN ON STEPS, SIDEWALKS, AND DRIVEWAYS, WHICH COULD BE ICY AND SLIPPERY, INCREASING YOUR RISK OF A FALL AND INJURY. &&

Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services says it has been pretreating roads and expects to have its “full response team” on the road shortly after midnight, before the first of the flakes starts falling.

The wintry weather is expected to prompt delays and cancellations at local airports, including Reagan National Airport, which is advising flyers to “check with their airline to confirm the status of their flight prior to coming to the airport.”

VDOT’s Northern Virginia office, meanwhile, is encouraging drivers to stay off the roads if at all possible.

VDOT asks that drivers plan travel around a winter storm bringing accumulating snow and a mix of frozen precipitation to the region throughout the day Wednesday. Avoid travel during the storm for safety, as well as after until road conditions improve.

Crews pretreated interstates and major routes throughout northern Virginia yesterday and today.

Tonight, trucks will stage along roadways, ready to plow and treat roads as needed when the storm begins.

VDOT Asks Drivers and Residents To:

  • Plan now to avoid driving through the day Wednesday and after the storm until conditions have improved. Give crews time to plow and treat roads.
  • Park in driveways or on the same side of the street to allow plows room to pass.
  • Continue to closely monitor weather, as forecasts can improve or worsen quickly.
  • If you absolutely must drive, know the conditions, drive for the conditions and give plows plenty of room. Ensure enough gas, wiper fluid, proper tires, medication, and an emergency car kit. Check road conditions along your route at www.511virginia.org, on the free mobile app, or call 511 from any phone in Virginia.
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W-L Name Change Opponents Work to Keep Legal Challenge Alive, Appealing to Higher Court

The backers of a lawsuit seeking to preserve the name of Washington-Lee High School are working to keep their legal challenge alive, appealing the matter to a higher court after a judge previously struck down the suit on procedural grounds.

Three current W-L students are hoping to block the Arlington School Board’s decision to strip Robert E. Lee’s name from the building, arguing that the Board didn’t follow its own stated policies for renaming the building and ignored the community’s opposition to the switch. The Board first kicked off a process to consider a name change in August 2017, in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and a nationwide reconsideration of the meaning of Confederate symbols.

Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman ruled in December that the students were barking up the wrong tree, noting that the Board broadly followed the community engagement process it laid out for the name change, and that state law doesn’t even bind school officials to follow that process to the letter, in the first place.

But the students, who are backed by a group of the school’s alumni working feverishly to preserve W-L’s name, were undeterred. Their attorney, Jonathon Moseley, told ARLnow that he’ll be appealing Newman’s ruling, even though the Board already voted last month to rename the school as “Washington-Liberty HS.”

“The judge took into account that [the School Board] didn’t follow all of their own procedures for the renaming, but he said it didn’t matter that they didn’t,” Moseley said. “I don’t like that idea, and I think it’s a pretty important issue that the courts need to address.”

Moseley expects that the appeal will head to Virginia’s Court of Appeals, rather than the state’s Supreme Court, though he’s still waiting on judges to sort out the details. He filed his notice of appeal in circuit court on Jan. 30.

Initially, Moseley had planned to simply amend his original complaint. Even though Newman struck down the students’ initial legal arguments, he gave Moseley until Jan. 9 to file revised arguments instead.

Court documents show that he missed that deadline, asking instead for Newman to issue a written explanation for why he blocked Moseley’s previous efforts and more time to consider next steps.

“I wanted more information about the judge was thinking,” Moseley said. “If there were no set of facts we could allege that showed the Board violated the rules, there’s nothing I could’ve added that would’ve been any different.”

But attorneys for the School Board pointed out in a motion that that request came “on the eve of the School Board’s vote on a new name for Washington-Lee High School” on Jan. 10, arguing it was “nothing more than a delay tactic.”

Similarly, Board attorney John Cafferky argued that Moseley “failed to articulate any legal authority” for a delay, urging Newman to toss out the case.

The judge proved to be sympathetic to those arguments. He ruled against Moseley’s motion in a Jan. 25 hearing, reasoning that the students missed their chance to file any revised claims and that the court no longer has jurisdiction over the matter.

That’s forced Moseley to appeal the dispute to a higher court instead, which could drag out the proceedings for months yet. He plans to have a brief ready supporting his appeal within the next 90 days, then the court will need to decide whether to take the case.

“It could be a year to a year-and-a half project if the appeals court decides it’s even going to look into that at all,” Moseley said. “They can do what they want.”

In the meantime, the school system is moving ahead with putting the building’s new name in place. Officials hope to have everything from signage to sports uniforms changed to reflect the new “Washington-Liberty” name in time for the 2019-2020 school year to start up in September.

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Arlington Schools Could Soon Start Class Before Labor Day, As Key Legislation Finally Moves Ahead

Arlington school leaders could soon gain the power to start classes before Labor Day, as some long-stymied legislation finally seems set to pass in the General Assembly.

State lawmakers are gearing up to finally repeal a provision widely known as the “King’s Dominion Rule,” which has barred school systems across the state from starting class before Labor Day for the last 30 years in a bid to provide Virginia’s theme parks with a robust pool of potential patrons, and student workers, each summer.

Many schools have already earned “waivers” to disregard the rule (including large school systems like Fairfax and Loudoun counties) and momentum has built in recent years to do away with the law entirely. Arlington officials have been particularly keen on kicking off class early, hoping to better align high school calendars with the slew of standardized tests that dominate the latter half of each school year.

And while it’s not a done deal just yet, Arlington could well get its wish this year. The House of Delegates and state Senate have now both passed a bill from Del. Roxann Robinson (R-27th District) to allow school systems to start classes up to 14 days before Labor Day — so long as they give students the Friday before the holiday off.

Lawmakers will now need to determine the bill’s next steps. General Assembly leaders could opt to send it along to Gov. Ralph Northam as it is, or convene a conference committee for additional negotiations as a competing bill from Sen. Amanda Chase (R-11th District) heads to the House floor for a vote.

Some local Arlington legislators — Sens. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) and Janet Howell (D-32nd District) — were backing narrower bills to give only Northern Virginia localities the power to control their school calendars. But those efforts were quickly rolled into Chase’s legislation instead, as it became clear that the tourism industry and school administrators might be able to strike a compromise on the legislation.

“We think this is a good compromise,” Chase told a House committee yesterday (Monday). “Our desire is really this to give the power back to the school boards, the parents and the PTAs, as opposed to big business determining when our young people go to school.”

Both bills would grandfather in school systems that already have waivers to start more than two weeks before Labor Day, a key demand from school leaders. Those localities also wouldn’t be required to give students the Friday before the holiday off.

Chase, and groups representing the state’s school boards and superintendents, said they would’ve much preferred a full repeal of the law to let school systems set calendars however they’d like.

By contrast, representatives of the state’s theme parks say they’re not thrilled with the prospect of schools starting the full two weeks before the holiday, but insisted on students receiving a four-day weekend as a bit of a compromise.

Tom Lisk, a lobbyist for the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association, told House lawmakers yesterday that the interest group is generally opposed to the legislation, but wouldn’t condemn the effort in its entirety.

“There’s an opportunity to work to find middle ground still,” Lisk said.

As of yet, however, there’s not much sign that lawmakers will bend to pressure from the hospitality industry on the bill.

The House’s education committee altered Chase’s bill to make it identical to Robinson’s on a 16-6 vote yesterday — should the House then pass the legislation, the final decision will rest with Northam. Or, the House could always alter Chase’s bill, setting up the potential for a conference committee, where a small team of negotiators would hash out the differences between the two pieces of legislation.

Regardless of just how lawmakers work out the details, Arlington’s School Board will be watching the proceedings quite closely. As the group set the calendar for the 2019-2020 school year on Feb. 7, Board member Barbara Kanninen told staff that she’d be “very interested” in seeing options for a pre-Labor Day start next year, so long as the legislature follows through.

“Ultimately, I’m a big fan of year-round school, and this gives us a chance to start working in that direction,” Kanninen said.

File photo

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School Board Approves New Calendar, Rejecting Proposal to Send Students to Class on Columbus Day

Arlington students will still have Columbus Day off next year, after the School Board rejected a proposal to send students to class on the controversial holiday.

The Board unanimously adopted an attendance calendar for the 2019-2020 school year at its meeting last night (Thursday). Students will still get the chance to stay home on Oct. 14 this year, while staff will have the day set aside for “professional learning.”

Arlington Public Schools staff had proposed another option sending both students and staff to school on Columbus Day, putting the school system in line with the rest of the county government, which largely does not observe the holiday. Students would’ve had Oct. 7 off instead, and staff would use the day for training.

That option did attract some support from APS employees and students — 69 percent of staff approved of that calendar, according to an APS survey, while 76 percent of students said they liked it as well. Just 22 percent of staff  and 14 percent of students said they supported the first option, though parents liked it a bit more. The status quo calendar earned support from 55 percent of parents, while the Columbus Day change garnered just 33 percent.

But Superintendent Patrick Murphy backed the calendar option maintaining Columbus Day as a student holiday instead, arguing that it provided fewer interruptions in the instructional calendar. It also better matches the calendar of other surrounding school systems, a key concern for APS employees who have children and live outside Arlington.

“This option is really similar to what we did this year, and most people felt like this worked, for the most part,” Erin Wales-Smith, interim assistant superintendent for human resources, told the Board at its Jan. 24 meeting.

Board members were initially skeptical of supporting a calendar that was so opposed by staff and students. But, in discussing the matter with staff, some members pointed out the second calendar, with Columbus Day no longer a holiday, appeared to show students and staff with more time off than the first calendar option did.

That difference could’ve accounted for some of the survey results, Board Vice Chair Tannia Talento reasoned. Staff ironed out that discrepancy in presenting the calendar options for the second time — now, students are set to see 30 days off next school year, as opposed to 29 under the rejected alternate plan.

Notably, the new school calendar also maintains Election Day as a day off for students, with staff doing off-site grade preparation.

The school system had a similar schedule in place last year, but the issue took on new urgency now that state lawmakers are advancing a bill to require all public schools to treat the first Tuesday in November as a holiday.

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New APS Enrollment Projections Reignite Old Debate Over Fourth Comprehensive High School Plans

New school enrollment projections have reignited the long-dormant debate over the wisdom of building a fourth comprehensive high school in Arlington, as officials plot out the best strategy to educate a student population that won’t stop growing.

The issue reemerged in earnest late last month, when Arlington Public Schools planners unveiled some startling new data that could upend the School Board’s long-term construction plans.

It was not exactly breaking news when planners revealed that the school system’s enrollment is projected to grow by about 24 percent over the next 10 years. APS has added an average of 800 students annually for the last five years, after all.

But school leaders were a bit surprised to see that growth continuing apace, after initially expecting the number of students flowing into the county start falling through 2028, not rising. Even more notably, the new projections show about 2,778 additional elementary schoolers set to enroll in Arlington schools over the next 10 years, about 1,000 more than school planners projected just a year ago.

Considering how young those students are, that number could demand a major reexamination of the school system’s plans to add new high school seats.

The Board decided back in 2017 to build room for 1,300 high schoolers split between the Arlington Education Center and the Arlington Career Center, avoiding the expensive and difficult task of finding space for a fourth comprehensive high school in the county. But these new projections have some Board members wondering if that will be enough to meet these enrollment pressures.

“One of the bottom lines of this is that the 1,300 high school seats is not enough,” Board member Barbara Kanninen said at the group’s Jan. 24 meeting. “This looks, to me, like we’re really going to need that full, comprehensive high school after our Career Center project. And, to me, that means we need to start thinking about what that package of high school seats is really going to look like.”

New County Board member Matt de Ferranti also raised some eyebrows by suggesting in his introductory remarks on Jan. 2 that the county should fund a new high school, but not all of Arlington’s elected leaders are similarly convinced.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy urged the Board to “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time,” and some members agreed with a more cautious approach to the new projections.

“APS enrollment is growing faster than the available funds we have to address our growth, for operating needs (teachers, textbooks, buses) as well as for capital projects (building and expanding schools),” School Board Chair Reid Goldstein wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “It’s important to remember that student enrollment and projections are just a snapshot of one major factor. That’s why we will continue to emphasize flexibility in our planning so we can be responsive and adaptable to address our future community and operating landscape.”

But, for some parents who have long demanded a new comprehensive high school in the county — joining Wakefield, Yorktown and the newly renamed Washington-Liberty — the new projections only underscore the urgency of what they’ve been asking for this whole time.

“I think the data have been suggestive for quite some time that Arlington will need a fourth high school, and it seems to make the most economic sense to do that project all at once and not in pieces,” Christine Brittle, a market researcher and APS parent who has long been active on school issues, told ARLnow via email.

But Brittle did add that it was “surprising” that Kanninen sees a need for a new high school even after the Career Center project is finished.

It remains an open question just how the Career Center will look once the school system can add 1,050 new seats there, work that is currently set to wrap up by 2025 or so. As part of deliberations over its latest 10-year construction plan last year, the Board agreed to build some of the same amenities at Arlington’s other schools at the Career Center.

But the county’s financial challenges meant that the Board couldn’t find the cash to build all of the features to make the Career Center entirely equivalent to a comprehensive high school, and a working group convened to study the issue urged the Board to open it as an “option school” instead of requiring students in the area to attend a school without the same amenities as others elsewhere around the county.

Accordingly, Brittle would rather see the Board simply expand its plans for the site instead of setting out to build a whole new school.

“I’m actually agnostic about whether the Career Center is the correct location for a [fourth high school], so perhaps APS is going to revisit that decision in light of these new projections,” Brittle said. “However, assuming they are going forward with the Career Center project, it certainly makes the most sense to do that project now as a full, fourth high school.”

Such a switch would come with its own complications — as the school system’s Montessori program leaves Drew Model School, it’s currently set to move into the old Patrick Henry Elementary, which sits next to the Career Center. Any move to transform the site would likely require finding a different home for the Montessori students instead, at least in the long term.

“It would be far cheaper to find some additional, offsite-but-nearby field space, add a pool to the already robust Career Center plans, and find another building to repurpose for elementary Montessori, rather than building a large choice high school, which they may or may not fill, and then having to turn around and build a fourth comprehensive high school elsewhere (with money Arlington does not have),” Megan Haydasz, an APS parent who’s advocated for more amenities at the Career Center, told ARLnow via email.

However, Kristi Sawert, the president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and a member of the Career Center working group, pointed out that APS is already pretty far down the path when it comes to moving the Montessori program to the Henry building. The Board recently agreed to reprogram hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the building to prepare for the Montessori students’ arrival, which she sees as an admission that “APS has no plans to tear it down to create a full-scale fourth high school (especially given that APS has a huge money deficit).”

“But I could be wrong,” she wrote in an email.

Still, that sort of option may well be on the table. Some Board members saw a need for more high school seats, but they didn’t share the same conviction that a fourth comprehensive school is the only way to achieve that goal.

“We’re going to have to put [these students] in a high school,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren. “1,300, 1,400 seats, that’s not enough, and we don’t have a school for all those kids in the [Capital Improvement Plan].”

Yet part of what drove Kanninen’s conviction that APS needs both new seats at the Career Center and a new high school is her belief that the county’s 10-year enrollment projections don’t tell the whole story.

Many of the new students planners expect to see in the coming years are young enough that they won’t be reaching high school by the time 2028 rolls around, convincing Kanninen that the data don’t paint a full picture of the school system’s in the distant future.

“The future kindergarteners you’re projecting won’t be in high school in 10 years, it’ll be 20 years,” Kanninen told APS staff at the Jan. 24 meeting. “We’re not seeing in this projection how many high school seats we are going to need… We need another high school down the road. We really need to clarify that story, and it’s really clear from this data in a way it never has been before.”

File photo

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JUST IN: APS to Open on Two-Hour Delay Thursday

Arlington Public Schools will be opening two hours late tomorrow (Thursday), marking the second straight day with a delay.

The school system says the delay is to allow “added time to warm buildings and address any potential mechanical issues with HVAC systems or buses.”

“The Extended Day program will also open two hours late and morning field trips are canceled,” APS staff wrote in a tweet. All essential employees and food service workers should report to work at the regular time; others should report two hours late.

The forecast for Arlington tomorrow calls for highs in the mid 20s and lows in the teens.

File photo

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UPDATE: APS Opening on Two Hour Delay Wednesday

(Updated at 8:15 a.m.) Arlington public schools are opening on a two-hour delay Wednesday, due to expected icy conditions.

APS announced the delay Tuesday night “based on the current weather forecast and conditions,” leaving open the possibility that worse-than-expected road conditions Wednesday could prompt a cancellation. Fairfax County Public Schools announced earlier that its schools would be closed tomorrow.

Wednesday morning, APS affirmed the two-hour delay decision.

The federal government, meanwhile, will open on a three-hour delay.

Authorities are asking anyone driving overnight and in the morning to take extra precautions due to the likelihood of dropping temperatures turning wet roads into icy hazards. Around Arlington Wednesday, there were some reports of black ice, particularly on local roads.

“VDOT asks that drivers be aware of weather and road conditions prior to making decisions to travel tonight and Wednesday morning,” said VDOT’s Northern Virginia office, in a press release. “Plan for the potential need to delay commutes Wednesday morning, as low temperatures overnight will freeze precipitation and create potential hazardous conditions.”

At least one significant crash was reported Tuesday night — a multi-vehicle wreck on I-395 near the Pentagon — but it’s unclear if weather was a factor.

As if the deep freeze wasn’t bad enough, the National Weather Service issued a Wind Advisory Tuesday night.

…WIND ADVISORY IN EFFECT FROM 9 AM TO 6 PM EST WEDNESDAY…

The National Weather Service in Baltimore MD/Washington has issued a Wind Advisory, which is in effect from 9 AM to 6 PM EST Wednesday.

* TIMING…Mid-morning through late afternoon Wednesday.

* WINDS…West 20 to 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph.

* IMPACTS…Strong winds may blow down limbs, trees, and power lines. Scattered power outages are expected.

PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…

A Wind Advisory means that winds of 45 to 55 mph are expected. Winds this strong can make driving difficult, especially for high profile vehicles.

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APS Presses Pause on Science Focus-Key Building Swap, Citing Unexpected Enrollment Jump

Arlington schools officials are pumping the brakes on a controversial plan to swap the Arlington Science Focus School and Key Immersion School buildings, after new projections revealed an unexpected increase in the county’s elementary school students in the coming years.

The school system had previously planned to move Key’s Spanish immersion program to the ASFS building, and vice versa, sometime in the next two years. The move was designed to solve some complex boundary issues in North Arlington neighborhoods, as some students currently zoned to attend ASFS actually live closer to Key.

But the school system’s plans have attracted some fierce community pushback since Superintendent Patrick Murphy rolled them out in September, with parents criticizing the logistics of the move and Murphy’s decision to press ahead with the decision without putting the matter to the School Board for a vote.

Yet Arlington Public Schools officials say the decision to “pause” the swap was driven instead by the newest data about school enrollment growth in the county, which staff presented to the Board last week.

APS planners previously believed that the county’s student population growth was finally beginning to level off after years of large jumps, but they’re now expecting a 24 percent jump in the student population between now and 2028.

Notably, elementary schoolers account for most of that change. Officials are forecasting a 21 percent increase in the elementary school population alone, which translates to about 2,778 more students over the next decade — that’s about 1,000 more kids than they expected the school system would add just a year ago.

“Given this projections update and the strong commitment APS has to the dual-language immersion program, the location for elementary immersion will be reevaluated to best meet the needs of our students,” APS staff wrote in an announcement on the school system’s website. “APS will reevaluate where the immersion program can grow, either at ASFS or other locations, while providing equitable access for all students in the immersion option.”

Both schools are currently overcapacity, and each one requires several trailers to educate those students. Some parents were already concerned that the swap would pose space problems even before these projection updates, as Key is both larger and currently holds more students than ASFS. A petition urging the Board to stop the swap has already garnered more than 800 signatures.

But with this new information in hand, the school system says it plans to keep studying the issue, with the goal of maintaining the “50/50 student balance of native Spanish speakers with speakers of English” for the immersion program wherever it might land.

“It’s important to consider the best locations for the immersion program at the elementary level to ensure equitable access for all students, and encourage participation by English learners along with native English speakers,” APS staff wrote. “This is critical to the integrity of the dual-language model and helps ensure that the academic benefits of the program are fairly distributed within a community.”

School officials hope to deliver a recommendation on a path forward to the Board by December, in order to include any adjustments as part of the next round of elementary school boundary adjustments. That is set to impact 14 schools in all, coming on the heels of the Board’s boundary changes for eight South Arlington schools at the end of last year.

More broadly, the new elementary school projections are igniting some big questions for the Board.

Planners reassured school leaders at their meeting last Thursday (Jan. 24) that this sort of surprise jump in student population is “not unprecedented,” and largely driven by the relentless pace of development in the county. But it’s concerning nonetheless for Board members, who only just signed off on a biannual update of the school system’s construction plans for the next 10 years.

“Our growth is continuing long-term,” said Board member Barbara Kanninen. “Until this update, the county and our data were kind of projecting we were going to level off at some point, probably around 32,000 students. You’re going beyond that… It really shows we have continual growth.”

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Drew Model School Set to See a Name Change, But Renowned Surgeon’s Name Will Remain

The Drew Model School in Nauck will soon get a new name as the school undergoes a bit of a transformation — but one key part of the building’s moniker won’t be going anywhere.

The elementary school is named after Charles Drew, a groundbreaking surgeon who grew up in Arlington. He was the first black man to hold a variety of prominent positions in the medical community, and is widely credited with establishing new storage techniques to set up lifesaving blood banks during World War II.

Drew’s family home in the Penrose neighborhood won a designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and both a park and community center in Nauck also bear his name.

But the school named after the surgeon, who died in 1950, seemed set for a bit of a change after the School Board convened a committee to pick out a new name for the building earlier this month. The school system is shifting the county’s Montessori program out of the building next year, prompting the latest in a series of recent debates over a new school name.

That will make the school a full “neighborhood” program, drawing students only from homes surrounding the school. The Montessori program will move to what was Patrick Henry Elementary, while many (but not all) Henry students will move to the new Alice West Fleet Elementary, in what became a contentious process that angered many parents.

Yet, as the Drew naming committee gathered to begin its work last week, school officials told the group that it shouldn’t plan on making too many substantial changes. According to notes from the Jan. 22 meeting, Superintendent Patrick Murphy himself told the committee that the naming process is designed to “build culture and community rather than to eliminate the recognition of Dr. Drew’s legacy, who was a preeminent scientist and wonderful role model from Arlington.”

The notes show that some committee members questioned why the group was even convened if Drew’s name wouldn’t be changed, while others said they sought to join the committee specifically to advocate for the retention of the school’s name.

But Murphy stressed that he did not believe the Board ever intended to see Drew’s name removed from the building, a point he reiterated at the Board’s meeting Thursday (Jan. 24) — the Board did not deliver a specific charge in kicking off the group’s work, unlike when it stipulated that a naming committee should not consider the prospect of retaining the original name of Washington-Lee High School.

The committee is still in the early stages of its deliberations, but the meeting notes show that it’s already considering several options that could honor the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) program that just started up at the school. Options the group has proposed so far include “Drew Science Focus School,” “Charles Drew Inspiration School,” “Charles Drew Science Academy” and “”The Charles Drew Academy.”

The committee also discussed the prospect of simply adding “of South Arlington” to the building’s current name, or perhaps adding a prominent artist’s name to the building alongside Drew’s.

The group broadly agreed to focus on priorities like “adding instructional focus,” “adding a second name to Drew,” “adding a descriptive designation such as academy” and tacking on a “geographic component” in settling on a new name. Members now plan to survey the school’s community for their preferences as well.

The committee is set to meet several more times between now and April, and the Board is planning a final vote on an updated name for Drew in May.

The Board also agreed at its Jan. 24 meeting to spend $1.8 million in capital reserve funding to speed up renovation work at both Drew and Henry to “refresh” both buildings ahead of next fall’s changes.

File photo

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Arlington Public Schools Opening on Two Hour Delay

Arlington’s public schools will open on a two hour delay on Tuesday.

“Due to the extreme cold, all APS Schools and offices will open two hours late,” APS said in a statement Monday evening. “The delay will provide additional time to warm buildings and address any potential cold weather mechanical issues with buses that have been idle since Friday.”

Temperatures overnight are expected to dip to 11 degrees in Arlington.

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Arlington Public Schools to Open on Two Hour Delay

As of Thursday night, Arlington Public Schools is planning to open Friday on a two hour delay.

Snow tonight and overnight is expected to make roads and sidewalks slick Friday morning. The two hour delay will allow temperatures to rise and road conditions to improve.

More from APS via Twitter:

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