Arlington, VA

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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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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The Arlington Career Center could someday be home to more students than any of the county’s three comprehensive high schools, but a group studying the site is urging school leaders to keep the campus open to all students countywide for the foreseeable future.

Within the next decade, Arlington Public Schools plans to add 800 new high school seats at the site to meet the demands of an ever-growing student population — but there are still endless details to be worked out around how to accomplish that task, and what the center’s long-term future might hold. After nearly a year of deliberations, a working group convened by the School Board is attempting to provide some answers with a final report released last week.

Though the 35-member group can only offer recommendations to the Board, the report repeatedly reiterates the value of the center accepting students from across the county as an “option school,” at least until APS can build enough amenities on the site to match Arlington’s other three high schools.

“All Arlington students, regardless of the type of school they attend, deserve an educational experience that includes quality indoor and outdoor spaces, including access to (un-programmed) green space,” the group wrote.

The Board has yet to make any decision on the very thorny question of whether the Career Center will be open to students countywide or only draw in nearby students from set attendance boundaries. That’s prompted some fierce advocacy from local parents over the past few months, who argue that making the center a “neighborhood school” without a full complement of facilities and athletic fields would be unfair to South Arlington students.

As part of updating its 10-year construction plan in June, the Board did commit to constructing a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage at the site, all in time for 800 new students arrive in 2025. Yet the “lack of an on-site pool in the near-term” remained a “sticking point” for some members, the group said. The report recommends that APS build a pool on the site at some point, a feature backed by some county officials, but budget constraints make such an amenity unlikely, for now.

Most of all, however, the group expressed “frustration” about a lack of clarity on the option versus neighborhood question, noting that “the distinction in seats would have a direct impact on whether the Career Center site could become a de facto fourth neighborhood high school.”

Whatever the center’s ultimate status, the group repeatedly stressed that school leaders should see the site’s long-term future as a “high school campus.” While APS doesn’t yet know how many students it will need to educate at the center, the group expects anywhere from 2,200 to 2,800 could someday attend school there — for context, just over 2,200 students were enrolled at the county’s largest high school, Washington-Lee, as of this June.

Accordingly, the group recommended that the school system design any changes to the center in a way that “supports potential growth and maintains maximum adaptability.”

APS isn’t sure whether it will someday demolish the current structure in its entirety or simply renovate it to accommodate the new students, but the group wrote that staff repeatedly assured them that “utilizing the core structure of the Career Center is the most environmentally friendly approach and one which can lower construction costs by up to 20 percent through limiting the amount of demolition required.”

However, the group does suggest that APS knock down some structures currently used for career and technical education classes, in order to free up space for a new, six-to-seven story “multi-level education space” near 9th Street S. and S. Walter Reed Drive. Those classes would then be moved to a new structure built along S. Highland Street.

The report also recommends adding a third floor “on top of the existing Career Center building for classrooms,” which could then connect to the new S. Highland Street structure.

Looking a bit further into the future, the group also urged APS to someday relocate the Columbia Pike Branch Library from its current home within the Career Center.

To do so, it suggests that the county acquire some properties owned by the Ethiopian Community Development Council just behind the center, running along S. Highland Street from its intersection with 9th Street S. to where it meets the pike. The group wrote that the nonprofit has already “signaled an interest in selling to the county,” and the land could help Arlington to build an expanded library on the site that “fronts Columbia Pike” to increase its visibility.

Ultimately, the group envisions that such a change would be transformative for the area, and it reasons that Arlington Economic Development officials could take the lead in pulling in developers, local universities and even art groups to chart a new future for the property. And it helps that all of those entities “could provide financial support necessary to acquire and develop” the properties, which surely won’t come cheap.

Photos via Arlington Public Schools

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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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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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(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.

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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.

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(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.

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(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) The Arlington School Board is nearing consensus on a plan to build 1,050 new seats for high schoolers at the county’s Career Center by 2024, with some, but not all, of the features community members want to see at the site.

At a May 22 work session, the Board expressed broad agreement on changes to Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed 10-year construction plan, known as the capital improvement plan. School leaders have yet to finalize these decisions, but Board members signaled an increased willingness to embrace a plan that costs roughly $64 million more than the one Murphy proposed.

The Board has spent the last few weeks grappling with how, exactly, they’d execute a plan members agreed to last summer calling for Arlington Public Schools to add more capacity yet avoid building a fourth comprehensive high school, by adding seats to the Career Center (816 S. Walter Reed Drive) and the “Education Center” site adjacent to Washington-Lee High School (1426 N. Quincy Street).

Murphy originally suggested that APS add space for 600 high school students at the Education Center site and 250 at the Career Center by 2021, then tack on 800 more seats at the Career Center in 2026. That construction would also involve the addition of a multi-use gym and “black box” performing arts theater at the Career Center, but would not include the addition of other amenities parents in the area have been demanding.

The Board was previously considering more ambitious plans to outfit the Career Center site with a full complement of athletic fields and performing arts space. But the increased cost of those options, when combined with how the spending would strain APS’ capacity for taking on debt, seems to be scaring off Board members.

“I wanted to know how we could fast track seats and get all the amenities,” said Board member Monique O’Grady. “I think it’s clear that would put us in a situation where it wasn’t affordable.”

The Board is moving closer to embracing a plan that would bump up the construction of 800 additional seats at the Career Center to 2024, but also calls for the addition of a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage to the site.

“It’s very important that we add seats, but also that our seats be high quality,” said Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “This would be what almost all of our high school students want to see in their school day.”

The Career Center would still not include every possible amenity the community might want to see, like a swimming pool or additional athletic fields, a point the Board repeatedly acknowledged. But Kanninen stressed that students at other county high schools have to travel elsewhere to participate in some sports or specialty classes, and she does not feel that building the Career Center school without those amenities would be inequitable for South Arlington residents.

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Arlington Public Schools is set to add seats for 850 high schoolers by 2021, but the key question for school leaders now is how, exactly, that construction might proceed.

The School Board is gearing up to award a $2.4 million contract for design work at the “Education Center” site adjacent to Washington-Lee High School (1426 N. Quincy Street), where the school system has planned to add space for up to 600 high school students three years from now. Rather than building a fourth comprehensive high school, the Board agreed last summer on a plan to split new seats between the Education Center and the Arlington Career Center just off Columbia Pike (816 S. Walter Reed Drive).

But the Board is also weighing a plan to use the Education Center site for elementary school use instead, while accelerating the construction of new high school seats at the Career Center. Another option would leave high schoolers at the Education Center, but still accelerate the Career Center seats.

Both plans would let APS build additional amenities at the Career Center site, a notable change as parents in the area raise concerns that students there wouldn’t have the same opportunities — a full complement of athletic fields, for instance — as other high schoolers under APS’s current plans.

“We feel like we’re being told we’re asking for too much by simply asking for equality,” Kristi Sawert, president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association, told ARLnow.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy is proposing a 10-year construction plan that broadly follows the outline of the deal the Board hammered out last summer — he’s suggesting that APS add space for 600 high school students at the Education Center site and 250 at the Career Center by 2021, then tack on 800 more seats at the Career Center in 2026.

That construction would also involve the addition of a multi-use gym and “black box” performing arts theater at the Career Center, with plans to build a new elementary school all the way out in 2029.

Yet, at a May 15 work session, county staff presented the Board with two alternatives.

One calls for moving the 800-seat expansion at the Career Center up to 2024, while simultaneously constructing an addition for performing arts programs. Then, a few years later, APS would add a synthetic athletic field on top of an underground parking garage at the site.

That option would reduce the school system’s reliance on trailers at the high school level a bit sooner, but force APS to delay plans to add more middle and elementary school seats, APS planner Robert Ruiz told the Board.

The other option APS staff developed calls for moving the Montessori program at Patrick Henry Elementary School to the Education Center instead, then sending 500 high schoolers to Henry by 2021.

By 2024, APS would add 800 seats at the Career Center, which would help replace the Henry seats. That option would also guarantee a full range of amenities at the Career Center by 2026, including two synthetic fields, an underground parking garage, a performing arts addition, a gym and a black box theater. Murphy’s current plan only calls for the gym and theater to be built.

However, it would also be about $10 million more expensive than Murphy’s plan, an unpleasant prospect for Board members after APS narrowly avoided class size increases in its last budget.

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Morning Notes

More Capacity for Yorktown, Career Center — The Arlington County Board this weekend is expected to approve use permit amendments that will allow 300 additional seats at Yorktown High School, thanks to internal modifications, and another 200 seats at the Arlington Tech program within the Arlington Career Center. [InsideNova]

Crystal City BID Considering Expansion — “The Crystal City Business Improvement District is weighing plans to include Pentagon City and Potomac Yard within its borders, creating a single, unified submarket that could also serve as a larger canvass for Amazon.com Inc. as it homes in on potential locations for its second headquarters.” [Washington Business Journal]

Entry-Level Homes Remain Sparse — One of the challenges facing the real estate market in Arlington and Northern Virginia as a whole is a dearth of entry-level homes for sale. Likewise, the inventory of homes for sale in general is low. Said one agent: “In hot areas like Merrifield, Arlington, Reston and Tysons, my buyers are experiencing multiple-offer situations.” [InsideNova]

ACFD Removes Handcuffs from Student’s Wrist — “Interesting call of the day: When you’re playing with handcuffs and the key breaks! [Rescue] 109 cut off a pair of handcuffs that had got stuck on a student’s wrist. No injuries except a broken pair of cuffs.” [Twitter]

GGW Endorses in County Board Race — The urbanist website Greater Greater Washington has endorsed Matt de Ferranti in the Democratic Arlington County Board primary. de Ferranti told the website that he supports “building housing that would be affordable across a variety of incomes and available to younger workers who can build income and own homes in the future.” [Greater Greater Washington]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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