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County Board Signs Off On $3.4 Billion Construction Spending Plan, Complete With Some Deep Cuts

Though it comes with some painful cuts and delays a variety of anticipated projects, a 10-year, $3.4 billion construction spending plan won the County Board’s approval this weekend.

The Board unanimously signed off on a new Capital Improvement Plan, commonly known as the CIP, at its meeting Saturday (July 14), marking an end to its months-long work to wrestle with the county’s budget pressures and lay out a new blueprint for major construction projects through 2028.

Ultimately, Board members made relatively few changes to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed CIP, but did manage to find an extra $1 million for the Neighborhood Conservation program.

That means the program, designed to fund local infrastructure projects like sidewalk improvements or new landscaping, will have $37 million to work with over the next decade instead of $36 million, even though community leaders still fear the $23 million funding cut will imperil Neighborhood Conservation’s future. The Board also formalized plans to study potential reforms to the program, in order to ensure its long-term survival.

By and large, however, the Board didn’t have much leeway to pump much additional money into the CIP, considering that the county remains constrained by challenging factors like a decrease in commercial tax revenues and an increase in the amount of cash it needs to send to Metro as part of a deal to provide the service with dedicated annual funding.

“It’s kind of a carrots and peas CIP, rather than a steak and asparagus CIP,” said Board member John Vihstadt. “It’s a realistic one for where we are at this point in time, given our economic circumstances and near-term challenges ahead.”

Board generally members struck an optimistic tone about the CIP Saturday, but there is little doubt that they’re already looking ahead anxiously to 2020, when the Board will revise the spending plan once more. By then, the county’s revenue picture could improve, or lawmakers in Richmond could answer Arlington’s pleas and tinker with the Metro funding deal to free up more money for Northern Virginia transportation projects.

“In two years, we’re either going to have a lot more money or we’re going to have a lot less,” said Board member Libby Garvey.

That’s why Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey stressed that he looks at the CIP as “a two-year document and an eight-year math exercise.” He was particularly adamant that parents concerned about school funding shouldn’t view this spending plan with trepidation, even as debate simmers over how the school system builds new space for high schoolers at the Arlington Career Center.

The Board’s CIP includes $614 million to fund the school system’s own construction plan, and the county wasn’t able to find much in the way of additional money to fund some of the more ambitious construction plans the School Board considered. Yet Dorsey is broadly optimistic that this new, limited CIP is far from the end of Career Center discussions.

“When our needs become more clear in the coming years, whether it’s schools or county facilities as well, and we’re able to price them out more, we’ll figure out how to pay for it,” Dorsey said.

There are certainly plenty of other cuts in the CIP the Board hopes to someday revisit. For instance, the plan pushes out the construction of second entrances at the Ballston, Crystal City and East Falls Church Metro stations far into the future, and cuts funding for improvements on some of the county’s arterial roads.

The CIP also contains only limited funding for planning at the Buck and Carlin Springs Road properties, a pair of sites officials have long eyed as potential homes for new schools or county facilities someday.

However, the plan does maintain funding for previously approved capital projects like a new Lubber Run Community Center and a replacement for Fire Station 8 on Lee Highway.

Board members were also eager to reiterate their support for the Long Bridge Park aquatics center. The project isn’t funded as part of this CIP, yet the county’s strained financial picture has nonetheless convinced some in the community to agitate for the pool’s delay or cancellation, in favor of sending its funding elsewhere.

“To try to cancel the contract now is not reevaluating past decisions in light of new information,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “To cancel a contract that breaks ground in a week would be setting a toxic precedent.”

Vihstadt, the lone Board member to vote against a slimmed-down version of the project last fall, reiterated his belief Saturday that the project should be delayed. Yet he also signalled that he was willing to let the matter go, for now.

“We had a vote last December, I was in the minority, I acknowledge it and I accept it,” Vihstadt said. “But I have no doubt if this process were going forward today, or if there were a vote on this particular issue today by the voters of Arlington, it would fail.”

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The Children’s School Advances Plans for Former Alpine Restaurant Site

The Children’s School is moving closer to finding a permanent new home, as it pushes forward plans to build a three-story daycare facility along Lee Highway.

The child care program for Arlington Public Schools employees is looking for a county permit to redevelop the space once occupied by the Alpine Restaurant at 4770 Lee Highway, marking the first formal proposal that the school would seek to build a a 27,500-square-foot facility on the property.

The Children’s School got its start in 1987 at the Reed School building in Westover as a childcare program owned and operated by school system employees, but APS’ plans to build a new elementary school at the site pushed the program elsewhere.

The co-op is currently operating out of a Ballston office building, and would look to use the Alpine site to expand its operations and serve about 235 children in total. Anywhere from 60 to 70 of those students would likely be part of the “Integration Station” program, which is reserved for kids with developmental or other disabilities, allaying initial worries that The Children’s School wouldn’t be able to maintain its relationship with the program.

The school is hoping to demolish the current restaurant on the property, then build a three-story facility complete with two outdoor play spaces and a one-level underground parking garage.

In all, there would be 42 parking spaces located on site, as well as nine extra spaces on an adjacent lot to serve the roughly 40 employees at the program. The building would also include a “covered drive aisle” to facilitate easy pick-up and drop-offs by parents, with hours running from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each weekday.

The play areas, designed to serve kids from 2 months old to 5 years old, would be located on the second- and third-floor roofs of the property, and both will be enclosed by a 7-foot-tall mesh fence. Those will face away from the road and toward the residential neighborhoods behind the building.

County staff are recommending that the County Board approve the project, writing in a report that the program has managed to work up the right sort of plans to mitigate any potential traffic impacts along Lee Highway. The Lee Highway Alliance also endorsed the project in a letter to the Board.

Board members will consider the permit request Saturday (July 14) as part of the Board’s “consent agenda,” which is generally reserved for non-controversial matters that are passed without debate.

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Morning Notes

Arlington Ridge Power OutageUpdated at 9:25 a.m. — A few dozen Dominion customers are without power in the Arlington Ridge and Pentagon City neighborhoods this morning due to an outage cased by “power line damage,” according to the utility’s website. Electricity is expected to be restored by 1 p.m. A tipster says the the Riverhouse apartments and some of the Pentagon Row shops were affected by the outage. Meanwhile, per Arlington County: “Arlington Ridge Road access from Washington Blvd as well as SB Arlington Ridge at S. Lynn Street will be closed for approximately 2 hours while Dominion Power repairs a damaged power line.” [Twitter]

APS Extended Day Website Survey — Arlington Public Schools is conducting a survey regarding its Extended Day management system. APS is considering a new system that would include an interactive parent portal, online registration, access to family accounts, and a database for family and staff information. [Arlington Public Schools, Google Forms]

Tax Delinquency Rate May Reach Record Low — “Arlington’s treasurer is optimistic that the county’s tax-delinquency rate could fall to another record low when it is reported later this summer… The delinquency rate to beat is the 0.226 percent reported last year, representing the amount of real-estate and personal-property taxes unpaid out of the roughly $800 million that flows through the treasurer’s office each year.” [InsideNova]

New Kettler Iceplex Sign — There’s a new sign on the parking garage in front of Kettler Capitals Iceplex: “Ballston / Home of the Washington Capitals / 2018 Stanley Cup Champions.” [Twitter]

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School Board Signs Off on $631 Million Construction Plan

A new capital spending plan for Arlington’s burgeoning public school system calls for adding more than 4,200 seats through 2027.

The $631 million construction plan includes a new elementary school at the Reed School site and 1,650 new seats for high schoolers split between the Education Center site and the Arlington Career Center.

The Board has spent weeks working to strike a balance between the school system’s increasingly tight finances and its ever-rising enrollment figures, resulting in a new Capital Improvement Plan that left Board members optimistic, yet unsatisfied.

Debate over the plans at Career Center, in particular, dominated the Board’s discussions about the CIP. Parents living near the center, which is located just off Columbia Pike and will someday be home to another 1,050 high school students, raised frequent concerns that APS might not build the same amenities at the site as it has at its three comprehensive high schools.

“With all the pressures on the school system right now, some may say the plan is not perfect today,” said Board member Monique O’Grady. “But I believe it’s evolving in the right direction.”

The Board’s tight financial picture meant that it couldn’t quite meet all the parent requests, but members did work to speed up the construction of some features at the site by re-allocating some of the school system’s capital reserve money.

Under the version of the plan approved Thursday, the Career Center will now include a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage.

The field and parking garage will be constructed in 2o23 to make those features available to students as more high schoolers move to the site. APS will then simultaneously add an 800-seat expansion and the performing arts section in 2025.

That will address some of the concerns raised by local parents, including some who formed an advocacy group focused on the issue. But they remain wary of how the Board will ultimately decide which students attend the Career Center site high school — members have yet to decide if it will be a “neighborhood” school only for students who live nearby, or a countywide “option” school.

“No child should be zoned to this school described in this proposal,” said Christine Brittle, an organizer with Citizens for Arlington School Equality. “Arlington has never had a choice school of this size.”

Board members stress that such a decision is a long way off, and the county’s financial picture could someday improve and allow APS to add more amenities to the site. There’s broad hope among officials that tax revenues will rebound when it comes time for the next CIP update in 2020.

“When the inputs change, the plan will change,” said Vice Chair Reid Goldstein. “The CIP is a plan, not a promise.”

In the near term, the County Board still needs to sign off on the school system’s CIP as part of its own capital spending process.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has previously warned that the School Board was a bit too ambitious in its ask from the county, though at a work session Tuesday (June 19), he suggested the version of the CIP the Board passed “can work… with a few minor adjustments.”

The County Board is set to pass its CIP by July 14.

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Video: Navy Reserve Commander Returns Home, Surprises Son at School

(Updated at 4:25 p.m.) Jonathan Blyth, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve who spent the last nine months overseas, promised his son he’d be home by the time school let out.

Blyth made it home today (Tuesday), with one day to spare.

He arranged to surprise his son, David, just before class let out at Arlington Science Focus School. Staff led the second grader away from the room briefly, giving his dad some time to sneak in and wait for David to return.

“I was very shocked,” David Blyth told ARLnow. “I was just expecting books.”

Jonathan Blyth says seeing his son again after nearly a year apart “gives you a greater appreciation of the United States of America,” particularly because this was his first deployment.

He was stationed at NATO’s Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan for the last seven months, so he finds himself appreciating even the little things like “the ability to walk and be outside.”

“It’s amazing to be back,” Blyth said. “It’s great to be back.”

He brought with him a preserved scorpion — David’s verdict: “It’s creepy looking,” but he still showed it off to his classmates — as well as a Washington Nationals baseball cap.

David will head back to school for his last day of class tomorrow (Wednesday), then the family will take off for a lengthy summer vacation.

“I promised him if he did well in school, he’d get a trip to Disney World,” Jonathan Blyth said.

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County Allows APS Parking at Buck Property, Though Site’s Future Still Uncertain

Someday, the Buck property in Ballston could be home to a new school, or for other county-owned facilities or offices — but for now, it’ll merely be used for parking for some school employees.

The County Board voted unanimously Saturday (June 16) to allow the school system to use 48 parking spaces at the site for at least the next two years. The School Board approved a similar initiative on May 30, clearing the way for Arlington Public Schools to park its “white fleet” at the site (1425 N. Quincy Street) and free up some space at the county’s Trades Center.

Arlington Public Schools struck a similar deal with the county last month to let some school bus drivers park their personal vehicles at the garage near Barcroft Park, as APS continues to buy more school buses and fill up its parking lots. This latest change would involve moving vans, SUVs and pickup trucks normally used by the school system’s maintenance workers over to the former Buck property, located just across from Washington-Lee High School.

“This is not a long-term vision,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “This is our management of a space that was always acquired with the purpose of being a piece of the puzzle in making sure the county can deal with its facility and infrastructure needs… How do we do something in the interim that’s reflective of using that investment wisely?”

The county agreed to shell out $30 million to buy the six-acre parcel back in 2015, and planners have spent months studying potential uses for the site. While officials have long hoped to use it for additional parking, the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission has considered a litany of other options as well, like building new APS office space, an additional 911 call center or even a new school on the property.

Yet County Manager Mark Schwartz revealed in his latest 10-year plan for construction spending that the county won’t have much money to spend on the Buck site. In all, his proposed Capital Improvement Plan calls for just $3 million in spending to make some minor improvements on the property, rather than moving ahead with any major changes.

Accordingly, that means the site will be open for APS parking, in the short term at least. The new lease agreement between the county and the school system will let APS use the site for the next two years, with the potential for six one-year renewals after that.

The move did meet with some community pushback. Some neighbors spoke at the County Board meeting and two different School Board meetings to express concerns about traffic noise at the site, particularly because workers will likely be arriving at the lot quite early — John Chadwick, the school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities and operations, noted Saturday that some employees will be at the parking lot as early as 3:30 a.m.

But Chadwick pledged to work with the community to mitigate any adverse impacts from this new arrangement. Additionally, School Board members stressed at their May 30 meeting that they hope the move is merely temporary, given the property’s potential to house a new school someday.

“Given the pressure on the school system to build new schools, I think there are many people that are hopeful that we’d begin exploring this site… to at least consider for a school,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren.

County staff noted Saturday that they’re currently conducting a technical and engineering analysis of the site, and that includes the property’s potential to someday serve as a home for new classroom space. They plan to wrap up that work this winter.

Photo via Google Maps

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School Board Weighs Draining Reserves to Meet Some Parent Demands at Career Center

(Updated at 3:25 p.m.) There may be a way to satisfy parent demands for equitable amenities at a new high school program near Columbia Pike — but it comes at a cost.

The School Board is nearing a vote on a new Capital Improvement Plan, which will guide the next 10 years of school construction, and that means time is running out for officials to tinker with plans for the Arlington Career Center. The site will eventually be home to an additional 1,050 high school students, but the Board has yet to settle on just how it will move forward with building on the property.

Parents in the nearby Arlington Heights neighborhood, in particular, have expressed concerns about how many athletic fields and parking options will be available at the Career Center, particularly when compared to the county’s other high schools.

Under the version of the CIP the Board reviewed at its meeting last Thursday (June 7), the school system would build an underground parking lot at the site with a synthetic field on top — but that will only happen in 2026, two years after space for 800 students is set to open up at the Career Center.

For some parents, such a delay seemed worrisome, particularly as students search for open field space for sports. Accordingly, the Board reviewed a plan at a work session Tuesday (June 12) that would ensure the garage and field get built by 2023, pushing off the 800-seat expansion, and simultaneous construction of a performing arts wing, until 2025.

“The community really needs us to define what wrap-around supports we’re going to provide there to make it an equitable experience for high school students,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren.

The plan would also address some of the Board’s funding concerns. Initially, Arlington Public Schools was set to pay for all this construction using bonds, a process that would’ve piled up more debt than school budget minders are usually comfortable with. This revised proposal calls for APS to shell out $24 million from its capital reserve fund to help pay for the Career Center work, cutting down a bit on the school system’s debt load and shifting the reserve money from future elementary and middle school projects.

Board members did express some consternation about drawing down a reserve fund so substantially — Vice Chair Reid Goldstein suggested he had plenty of “heartburn” over the prospect that the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum could jack up construction costs in the future, meaning those reserves could come in handy down the line. Yet most expressed a willingness to embrace the proposal, all the same.

“I see the tradeoffs,” Van Doren said. “But we need to fund as many seats as possible out of our own pocket right now.”

That’s because the County Board has its own money troubles to worry about, and likely won’t be able to help APS fund additional school construction.

Leslie Peterson, assistant superintendent of finance and management service, noted that the school system’s original CIP proposal calls for about $19 million more in spending than the county is currently expecting to send the school system. The revised school proposal, with its reliance on reserve money, would greatly close that gap, Peterson told the Board.

“It is not a given, as we sit here tonight, that what we vote on as our plan will be fully funded,” said Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “We really do have to understand that.”

Yet even this newly retooled plan for the Career Center is unlikely to answer all the concerns of parents living nearby, some of whom have formed an advocacy group to fight for additional amenities at the site, particularly should it someday become a school serving only students living nearby. They’re even mulling legal action should the Board not meet their demands.

The Board is set to sign off on a final version of its CIP at its meeting next Thursday (June 21).

Photo via Google Maps

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APS Graduation Celebrations Kick Off This Week

(Updated at 3:30 p.m.) Summer vacation starts tomorrow for high schoolers in Arlington Public Schools, and that means it’s officially graduation season.

The rest of the county’s schools aren’t far behind; middle schools will let out for the summer next Tuesday (June 19) and elementary school students will have their last day Wednesday (June 20).

Graduation and promotion ceremonies for APS are scheduled as follows:

Thursday, June 14 (today): Comprehensive high schools at DAR Constitution Hall

  • 10 a.m. — Washington-Lee
  • 2:30 p.m. — Yorktown
  • 8 p.m. — Wakefield

Friday, June 15: 

  • 5 p.m. — H-B Woodlawn Potluck and Graduation Celebration (H-B Woodlawn students receive diplomas from their home schools)

Monday, June 18: Middle school promotion ceremonies, multiple locations

  • 8:30 a.m. — Gunston, Williamsburg, Kenmore and Swanson
  • 9 a.m. — Jefferson

Tuesday, June 19: Alternative programs in Washington-Lee cafeteria

  • 9:30 a.m. — Arlington Community High School (formerly Arlington Mill)
  • 1 p.m. — Langston High School Continuation Program

Bishop O’Connell, a Catholic school in Arlington, held its graduation ceremony May 31. Today is the last day of school for non-seniors.

New Directions, an alternative APS program, held its graduation yesterday (June 13) in the Arlington Central Library.

The first day of the 2018-19 school year for all K-12 students in Arlington Public Schools is Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Flickr pool photo by Wolfkann

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Washington-Lee High School to be Renamed

The Arlington School Board has kicked off a process to rename Washington-Lee High School, aiming to settle on a new moniker for the school before the year is out.

The School Board voted unanimously at its meeting last night (June 7) to approve a change to the school system’s approach to naming school buildings. Though the policy will apply to all current and future county schools, it specifically stipulates that the Board should select a new name for Washington-Lee, given Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s legacy fighting for the cause of slavery.

The Board has been considering a name change at the school since last summer, when a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville sparked a national conversation about Confederate symbols and prompted calls in the community to change the name. Yet the Board opted to revise its whole policy around school names, rather than just change Washington-Lee’s moniker specifically.

But with the new policy passed, the Board will now move forward with a three-month long process of finding a new name for W-L, which has borne the same name since it opened in 1925. Board members are set to pick a committee to deliberate on the name in September, and could vote on a change by December.

“Celebrating your school pride should not mean having to wear a shirt like this one that honors a person who may not share your values,” said Board member Monique O’Grady, while holding up a W-L t-shirt. “As we become a more diverse community, we must become more open to the perspectives of many, and how holding onto some elements of our past can have an impact on our future.”

The decision will undoubtedly come as bad news for some W-L alums. A number of graduates from the school have publicly objected to the move, both at Board meetings and in community demonstrations. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, has even spoken out on the issue, in keeping with his defense of other Confederate symbols around the state over the last year or so.

“This implicitly would vilify virtually every southern family from the Civil War, in perpetuity,” said George Dodge, a W-L alum who spoke at the meeting.

But Board members stressed that they also heard frequently from parents interested in seeing the name change, fearing that Arlington Public Schools is sending the wrong message by so prominently honoring a man like Lee.

“If we continue to honor Lee the symbol, we continue to honor a set of values that has nothing to do with what Arlington is today,” Natalie Roy, a parent of APS students, told the Board.

The lone bit of resistance to the policy change came from Vice Chair Reid Goldstein. While he acknowledged that the naming policy needed to be set in stone as APS prepares to open a bevy of new schools across the county, he saw no reason for rushing forward with a process for renaming W-L specifically that he believed wasn’t as precise as it needed to be.

“There is no required timeline for renaming an existing school, and no rationale for why it must be done by the December of [2018],” Goldstein said.

Goldstein made a motion to create a committee to study potential renaming requests and make recommendations to the Board, but he was the only Board member to support it. Even still, he ultimately agreed to let the renaming process move ahead, noting that Lee “had good run in Arlington Public Schools, 93 years, but other heroes will arise.”

Under this new plan, W-L is set to have its new name displayed on all of the school’s facilities and logos by September 2019.

“Our kids need us to show them the path forward in a respectful, thoughtful kind ways that unifies us,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren. “I think we can do that. I think that’s the legacy of both of the gentlemen on that building right now.”

Photo via Google Maps

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Parents Planning Protest, Lobbying Effort to Reverse School Board’s Career Center Plans

A group of parents who could someday send their kids to a new high school program at the Arlington Career Center remain frustrated by the school system’s plans for the site, and they’re planning a new effort to make their voices heard.

Concerned parents, largely hailing from the Arlington Heights neighborhood around Columbia Pike, are banding together to form a new nonprofit called “Citizens for Arlington School Equality.” The organization, which will lobby the School Board to include a broader range of amenities at the school site, is planning to kick off its efforts with a march from Patrick Henry Elementary School to the Board’s meeting tonight (June 7) at the Syphax Education Center (2110 Washington Blvd), with a rally to follow.

The Board has yet to finalize just how it will build 1,050 new high school seats at the Career Center, but it is nearing a consensus on a new Capital Improvement Plan that would dictate how the construction proceeds over the next decade. A final vote on the plan is set for June 21, but the Board seems to be nearing agreement on a proposal to build the seats by 2024. Under the proposal, amenities at the site would include a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage, all to be added by 2026.

Yet that plan has done little to satisfy some Arlington Heights parents, who are concerned that the Career Center site wouldn’t offer the same features as the county’s other comprehensive high schools. They’re particularly concerned that the Board’s proposed design would fundamentally disadvantage students who live near the Career Center in South Arlington and are most likely to attend the new program.

“I want this for my kids, but I want to make sure I live in a county that cares about the education of all kids equally,” Jennifer Milder, the parent of two students attending Henry right now and one of the new group’s organizers, told ARLnow. “And the needle has moved very little on the inequality spectrum so far. There are still not adequate fields, still not adequate parking, or an adequate gym.”

Board members have spent plenty of time wrestling with how they can beef up amenities at the site, and examined several plans that would’ve added more amenities to the program and sped up their construction so they were available as the facility opened its doors.

But all of those proposals would have put a serious strain on the school system’s finances and were ultimately cast aside. Even the Board’s current plans will strain Arlington Public Schools’ borrowing capacity, and the county’s similarly challenging financial picture means the County Board may not be able to help, either.

Yet Milder and some her fellow parents believe both boards should view fully funding amenities at the Career Center site as a priority important enough to force a re-ordering of the county’s long-term construction plans.

“The county is doing all these things to attract businesses and people to Arlington, then not backing it up by supporting students they’re bringing here,” said Megan Haydasz, another Arlington Heights parent involved with the new group.

Haydasz suggested her new group could even pursue legal action against the school system if the Board opts to pursue its current plans at the Career Center. She’s hoping the new group will be able to start accepting donations soon, and will be able to fund all manner of advocacy work.

“Families with the resources to get their students out of this situation will do so, and that will leave behind families who can’t,” Milder said. “It’d be a sad state of affairs.”

That’s why Milder and Haydasz hope to use their new group to convince the county raise taxes next year — a distinct possibility, County Manager Mark Schwartz has repeatedly warned — and use that money to better fund the school system. If the county fails to do so, the parents worry how the neighborhood might change in response.

“I’ve talked to several people already reconsidering adding onto their houses, or are even thinking about putting their homes up for sale already,” Haydasz said. “The uncertainty is too much for them. They wanted to be in the South Arlington community, but they can’t gamble with their kids.”

The group will begin its march from Henry at 5 p.m., and plans to arrive at the Syphax Center for a rally by 5:15 p.m. The Board meeting starts at 6 p.m.

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County Police Investigating Series of Thefts at Arlington Elementary Schools

Arlington County Police and school officials are working to track down the people responsible for a series of thefts from local schools over the last few months.

ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage says her department has received 10 reports of larcenies of credits cards or wallets from Arlington schools since May 2017, with the most recent coming last Thursday (May 31).

She says police are investigating thefts from nine schools in all:

  • Ashlawn Elementary School
  • Barcroft Elementary School
  • Campbell Elementary School
  • Carlin Springs Elementary School
  • Drew Model School
  • Glebe Elementary School
  • Jamestown Elementary School
  • McKinley Elementary School
  • Tuckahoe Elementary School

“The investigation into these incidents determined that in the majority of cases, the suspects enter the schools following dismissal and steal unsecured personal belongings to include wallets, credit cards and cash,” Savage told ARLnow via email. “These crimes are organized and believed to be regional in nature. While there is no indication that this individual is linked to this case, similar incidents have been reported in Maryland.”

Savage says the department is urging school staffers, particularly in elementary schools, to report suspicious activity and regularly monitor their bank statements. APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said the school system is taking steps to address the issue as well.

“We have been working with police to circulate the images of the suspects,” Bellavia wrote via email. “We are also asking staff to make sure to lock up their personal belongings so that they can’t be accessed. Front office staff as well as other staff members are being asked to be vigilant especially during dismissal when there are a lot of people around.”

A tipster told ARLnow that the thefts bring up larger questions about school safety.

“This put[s] the entire school community at risk,” the tipster said. “It is my deep concern about procedures in APS schools and the failure of the administration to properly address the school safety issue. If attention is not drawn to this now, it is my fear this will escalate into a crisis.”

An email sent to school staff from an ACPD sergeant, an image of which was sent by the tipster, has more details about how the thieves operate. (It also contained a link to an article about similar thefts in Maryland.)

We believe these crimes are organized, regional in nature, and possible based out of the area near the Prince George’s/District line. Most charges are near here and in Silver Spring.

We believe the schools that are targeted are mostly elementary schools and mostly near the outskirts of the county near a highway that links up to DC/MD.

We believe a group arrives at a school near dismissal time and parks nearby.

Some occupants stay inside the vehicle and some wander onto school property and look to enter an entrance that is not the main school entrance. They then look lost, look into open classrooms, and look through purses and only take credit cards. They cards are then maxed out using some type of purchase with money cards at a CVS. This allows the thieves to recover cash from their crimes.

File photo

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School Board Looking for County Help on New Construction, But Funding Squeeze Complicates Debate

(Updated at 4:40 p.m.) Arlington school leaders believe they’ll need plenty of help from the County Board to build enough schools to keep pace with a rapidly growing student body over the next decade — but the county’s own financial pressures will likely limit just how much it can lend a hand.

The School Board and County Board convened for a joint meeting on Tuesday (May 29) as officials pull together their respective capital improvement plans, documents outlining construction spending over the next 10 years, in order to better coordinate the process.

Though neither board has finalized its CIP, the School Board is a bit farther along in the process and is currently eyeing a roughly $631 million plan for approval. But to make that proposal more viable, the Board told their county counterparts that they’ll need help in a few key areas: finding off-site parking and athletic fields for high schoolers, taking on debt to build new schools and securing more land for school buildings.

“Given the constraints we have, we have to be very creative,” said School Board member Nancy Van Doren. “And we need help.”

While County Board members expressed a willingness to work on those issues, they’re facing their own problems. County Manager Mark Schwartz’s $2.7 billion proposal comes with hefty cuts to some transportation improvements and neighborhood infrastructure projects, as the county grapples with increased funding demands from Metro and a shrinking commercial tax base.

In all, Schwartz is envisioning sending $396 million to Arlington Public Schools for construction projects through 2028, but even that amount might not help the school system meet its planned building needs.

“The amount of money we have in there for schools does not match the amount of money the schools are asking for,” Schwartz said during a Wednesday (May 30) town hall on the CIP. “They’re asking for more.”

In part, that’s because the School Board has been working to find a way to add more space for high school students a bit sooner than they originally anticipated, and add more amenities for those students in the process.

Members have spent the last few weeks wrestling with how to implement a “hybrid” plan the Board approved last summer, avoiding the need for a fourth comprehensive high school by adding seats to the Arlington Career Center (816 S. Walter Reed Drive) and the “Education Center” site adjacent to Washington-Lee High School (1426 N. Quincy Street). They’ve been especially concerned with how to most efficiently add features like athletic fields and performing arts space to the Career Center site, over concerns from parents that building space for high schoolers without those amenities would present an equity issue.

As of now, the Board is nearing agreement on a plan to build out space for a total of 1,050 high schoolers at the Career Center by 2024, complete with a multi-use gym and “black box” theater. APS would add a synthetic field on top of an underground parking garage at the site two years later.

Other, more ambitious options were dubbed “budget busters” by APS staffers, but even this plan is $33 million more expensive than Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s original proposal. It would also force the school system to run afoul of one of its principles of financial management: a pledge to avoid spending more than 10 percent of the annual budget on debt service costs.

Accordingly, Board members were quite interested Tuesday in learning how the county might take on some of that debt, or help APS bring down the costs of that new construction, perhaps by helping the school system find off-site parking instead of building new garages or better coordinating the of sharing county fields.

On the former point, County Board member John Vihstadt expressed a willingness to find out how such a debt collaboration would work. Schwartz, however, was not especially optimistic about the prospect, noting it would require some hard choices on the CIP.

“That would mean taking either a project away on the county side or adjusting the timing of a project on the county side,” Schwartz said.

County Board members were much more willing to try working together on sharing fields, and on helping APS find new school sites. Vice Chair Reid Goldstein pointed out that such promises hardly addressed the “elephant in the room.”

“The way to move us away from getting close to the 10 percent [debt limit] is to raise the budget and that means taxes,” Goldstein said. “You folks have that power and we don’t.”

Schwartz has said he’ll likely call for tax increases in next year’s budget, but such discussions are still a year away. First, both boards need to finalize their CIPs — the School Board is set to do so on June 21 while the County Board’s CIP approval is scheduled for July 14.

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School Board Moves Closer to Renaming W-L High School Under Proposed Policy Change

(Updated at 3:25 p.m.) Washington-Lee High School could see its name changed by the end of the year under the terms of a policy change reviewed by the Arlington School Board Thursday night (May 31).

The Board has been mulling the possibility of stripping Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from the school ever since last summer’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville sparked a national conversation about Confederate symbols, but members asked school system staff to develop a more detailed policy framework to guide the naming of all buildings first.

Arlington Public Schools officials delivered that proposed change to the Board last night, and members are now set to take action on it by this coming Thursday (June 7).

“We said we’d seek to adopt naming criteria that reflect our values and allow us to judge every potential school name with objectivity,” said School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “We have kept these promises… and we’re in a good place. I really like what you’ve brought us. I think it’s going to be a model as other school communities grapple with this issue.”

The new policy, drafted over the course of the last nine months or so, is principally designed to guide Board members as they select new names for the bevy of new school facilities set to open in the coming the years.

It would recommend putting an emphasis on selecting geographical names with “historic or geographic significance to the Arlington community’s history. But if the Board is to name a school after an individual, that person’s “‘principal legacy’ (i.e. the key activity, advocacy or accomplishment for which the individual is most known)” needs to align with “the APS mission, vision, and core values and beliefs,” according to the proposal.

Yet, under those criteria, APS staff also suggested that the Board would need to rename Washington-Lee, given Lee’s legacy fighting for the Confederacy, which championed slavery.

“A lot of people don’t like change and we know that it’s difficult in all aspects,” said Linda Erdos, APS assistant superintendent for school and community relations and the facilitator of discussions around the naming policy. “But everybody kept saying, ‘Diversity should be on the minds of people, the diversity of the people served.'”

Such a change would certainly not be without controversy — some Washington-Lee alumni have been vocally protesting any change to the school’s name, over concerns that such move would tarnish a fixture of Arlington County. Washington-Lee has used that moniker since it opened in 1925, and some alums urged the Board to put the matter to a public referendum.

“The Arlington voters should make the decision, not five persons,” said Betsy Lockman, a W-L alum.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, echoed that call in a press conference ahead of the meeting. Stewart made his opposition to the removal of statues of Confederate generals in Charlottesville a hallmark of his failed bid for governor last year, and he dubbed any consideration of renaming Washington-Lee as an example of “political correctness gone rampant.”

“I guarantee you, the citizens of Arlington County and the alumni think, ‘Leave it alone,'” Stewart said. “The average citizen, including here in Arlington and throughout the country, realizes it’s absolutely ridiculous and a tremendous waste of Arlington County’s resources and the school system’s resources.”

Vice Chair Reid Goldstein wasn’t willing to call for something as unorthodox as a referendum on the issue, but he did, at least, want to see the Board slow down a bit.

“I don’t think one week is enough time to consider this,” Goldstein said. “I would like to hear from the community in a way that is a little bit more balanced than the way that we’ve heard in the past, because, to me, this is a significant issue.”

Yet Board member Tannia Talento pointed out that the proposed policy has already been in the works for months, and would lay out a lengthy process that would focus on Washington-Lee’s name specifically. If adopted, the proposal calls for the Board to convene a committee on the issue, which would issue a recommendation on the school’s name by November. The Board would then vote on the issue in December, with any new name to fully take effect by September 2019.

Accordingly, Kanninen recommended that the Board push ahead and take up the new policy sooner, rather than later.

“We have a clear and rational policy proposal that we’re looking at, and it will chart our path as we proceed to the next steps,” Kanninen said.

Photo via Google Maps

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County Manager Pledges Not to Abandon Planned Construction Projects, Even Amid Community Grumbles

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Despite mounting financial challenges, top Arlington officials say they don’t plan to walk away from some major construction projects that are already in the works — even if that stance ruffles a few feathers in the community.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has stressed repeatedly that his newly unveiled proposal for the next decade of Arlington construction projects, known as the Capital Improvement Plan, will maintain the county’s standing commitments to several major facilities around Arlington, even as he’s forced to make painful cuts elsewhere.

With the county sending more money to the Metro system, all while dealing with declining commercial tax revenues and rising public school enrollments, Schwartz is adamant that projects like the Long Bridge Park Aquatics and Fitness Center and the new Lubber Run Community Center won’t be affected.

But the large price tag of those projects already has some community activists asking: why not change things up?

“We’re spending millions on synthetic fields and a new swimming palace… and 600 or 700 kids are moving into the county schools each year,” civic activist Suzanne Sundburg said at a town hall meeting Wednesday night (May 30) that was also broadcast via live Facebook video. “I understand people want to finish what they start, but at what point do we start re-evaluating priorities and reprioritizing?”

Schwartz said the question was a valid one, and will likely spark plenty of debate among County Board members as they evaluate his CIP proposal over the coming weeks. But he also warned that the risks of spurning these projects, particularly after the county has already awarded design and construction contracts, could far outweigh the benefits of saving some money.

“There are some things that are settled that we have to move on,” Schwartz said. “There are obligations on the books that crowd out our ability to do new things, and that is the situation we face.”

Schwartz was particularly concerned that people in the community might see abandoning the Long Bridge Park project as a viable option, even if they blanch at its $60 million price tag. Not only does he believe it would be a “breach of faith” with the community, following roughly two decades of discussions on the project, but he pointed out that a contractor has already spent the last five months working on it.

“If we back out on that, nobody in the contracting community is going to bid on any of our contracts for the next five years,” Schwartz said. “We’d probably not only be involved in protracted litigation with [the construction company], but we probably wouldn’t be able to do as much as we want to do, and our future projects would go up in price. People would build that in as a risk premium.”

Such an outcome would be particularly problematic as the county and APS eye a future full of new school construction; Schwartz noted that contractors tend not to see much of a difference between the county government and its school system.

Schwartz’s proposed CIP does come with some cuts likely to upset some people across the county, which could push the County Board to ignore the manager’s warnings. For instance, county transportation director Dennis Leach noted that initiatives like the Complete Streets program, Walk Arlington and Bike Arlington “did not get eliminated, but they were trimmed.”

The county’s Neighborhood Conservation Program, meanwhile, will also lose $24 million in funding over the 10-year plan, and Schwartz expects that there will “not be an adequate amount of money to keep pace with the program” in county coffers.

“This is a matter of making choices,” Schwartz said. “There isn’t extra money that’s laying around.”

The Board will hold a series of CIP work sessions over the month of June, with a planned final vote on the proposal on July 14.

File photo

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W-L Renaming Proposal Prompts Press Conference By GOP Senate Candidate

The possibility of Washington-Lee High School being renamed has prompted a Republican U.S. Senate candidate to schedule a press conference outside of tonight’s Arlington School Board meeting.

The School Board is set to discuss proposed revisions to its school naming policy Thursday night. In a presentation, school staff will recommend a series of changes that will help guide Arlington Public Schools as it selects names for a number of new facilities, including the new building in Rosslyn that will house the H-B Woodlawn and Stratford programs.

But much of the public attention will be focused on a recommendation to start a process that could remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from Washington-Lee. APS staff says the inclusion of Lee’s name would not meet the revised naming policy, which calls for APS to consider the namesake’s legacy.

“Robert E. Lee’s ‘principal legacy’ (i.e. the key activity, advocacy or accomplishment for which the individual is most known) was as General of the Confederate Army leading forces against the U.S. forces,” the staff presentation says. “This action does not reflect the APS mission, vision, and core values/beliefs.”

Prince William County Board Chairman Corey Stewart, who’s running for U.S. Senate in Virginia and seeking the GOP nomination, is planning a press conference outside the meeting.

In a media advisory, Stewart’s campaign says the press conference will be held at 5:30 p.m., outside the meeting at the Syphax Education Center (2110 Washington Blvd).

Stewart, who has been outspoken in defense of Confederate monuments and names, says he will be joined at the press conference “by concerned Washington-Lee High School alumni.”

The staff presentation notes that APS “received numerous renaming requests [for Washington-Lee] after August 11-12, 2017 events in Charlottesville, Va.” Following the “alt-right” rally and the death of counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Stewart issued a statement decrying “Democrats and the media” and the “drive to squelch free speech.”

Photo via Google Maps

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