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School Board Faces Tough Choices on CIP

Nine building vie for likely limited money.

Warnings started early this year, as school board members looked at building designs.

Plans to renovate and add on to eight Arlington schools were in the works from last year, and were set to be funded on the school system’s capital improvement plan for next year. But Mary Hynes, chair of the school board, offered words of caution as the board passed each design.

"In the last few years, we’ve had the luxury of saying everything we want to do is affordable," she said in January. "This time, all the dollars we need might not be available."

The reasons are two-fold. In a year when the economy is, at best, in a rebound, public sentiment to fund more than $80 million in bond money may be limited. In addition, the county government has an interest in the school bond, which would affect the county’s triple triple-A bond rating.

Too much bond money can make the county’s debt burden seem too high to investors, knocking the county’s bond rating down. That would mean Arlington bond money would be subject to higher interest rates, further increasing the debt burden for future projects.

"We’re still having conversations with the county about affordability," Hynes said this week. "There’s a concept paper from the county manager that creates a framework for the long-run."

<b>PARENTS AT SCHOOLS</b> vying for spots said they understand the school board’s bind. But at the same time, they would like to see the renovations begin at their local school.

"I’m not sure what to think," said Maureen Puziene, PTA president at Nottingham Elementary. "When prioritization was explained, I felt like our chances were still good."

Nottingham is one of two schools that has not been renovated in the last 20 years, and is also one of the last two recommended for renovation in a 1996 report.

But as Puziene found out about the needs of other schools on the list, she began to lose confidence that work at Nottingham would be funded.

School staff say the work is badly needed. Shelves in the library are pulling away from the walls, sinks in classes and bathrooms are showing the effects of 40 years of education, and some staff members have had to move their offices to closet space in order to accommodate students.

"I was very optimistic. Now I’m a little unsure," Puziene said. "I have the impression that it might be put off for two years."

Judy Hughes echoed Puziene. Hughes, a former PTA President at Glebe Elementary, sat on a committee that looked at renovations for Glebe in 1996. At that point, she said, Glebe got bumped off of the CIP when other projects went over budget.

"Glebe played the good citizen before," Hughes said. "Given that it’s five years later, I find it hard to imagine that will be happen again. I’m assuming the decision makers will take that into account."

Still she said, facilities at other schools may also present urgent needs for the board. "My bet is, all the middle schools make it, and Yorktown probably needs to go as well," Hughes said. "But I’d hate to play God and decide which gets delayed."

<b>IT’S PREMATURE</b> for the county to consider the school projects too closely, county spokesman Richard Bridges said. The county budget will only be passed this Saturday, and the schools aren’t due to approve their CIP until late May.

But county staff and school staff are discussing what kind of budget the schools should consider for their CIP, Hynes said. "I think the staff is looking at the county’s affordability," she said. "The staffs are working together, but they haven’t brought anything to the board, collectively, yet."

In addition, the school board is waiting on its own internal assessment of which schools most need renovations. Board members approved a prioritization plan in January, establishing a point system for each of the CIP projects.

An outside consultant is analyzing the nine projects proposed for the CIP, to decide which are most pressing in terms of physical need, which can be managed with existing resources, and which schools come closest to meeting Arlington guidelines for teaching space. Possible crowding at each of the schools will also be factored into the rating system.

Until those recommendations come to the school board, Hynes said, the board will keep moving projects along in the pipeline. Under guidelines adopted for the last CIP planning process in 2001, plans for building projects are funded first, and separate from funding for the project itself.

So the school board will look at plans to renovate Yorktown High School Thursday night, and will likely pass the schematic at its May 2 meeting. All but two of the projects have met board approval, and moved on to the final design stage.

"We’ve allowed things to get to the final design stage, or with Yorktown or Kenmore, the schematic stage," Hynes said. "We want to keep things moving. It’s still up in the air"

At the same time, she said, she has tried to apply the brakes to projects, letting parents and school administrators know that necessary work on their schools may have to wait for another year. Overall, she has stressed the uncertainty of the moment.

"The last thing I sent out to PTA presidents, I said stay tuned," Hynes said. "I promise there will be plenty of time for people to comment."