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Eight Aging Schools Need Funding

School board says short funds may mean projects get delayed.

Isabelle Cozzarelli knows that Arlington schools are aging.

She knows that none are falling apart. But she knows that many need serious attention. She also knows that money is short, and some schools may end up out in the cold

"The whole county should be concerned," said Cozzarelli, former president of Glebe Elementary’s PTA. "Not just people with kids in schools."

Cozzarelli joined parents from two other elementary schools in crossing their fingers last Thursday night, as the Arlington School Board looked at plans to renovate Glebe, Jamestown and Nottingham elementary schools.

The board approved all three redesigns, but not without some minor debates. The three elementary schools join a list of five other Arlington schools that could require major funding in a school construction bond next November.

"We haven’t needed much of a public process in the past," Board Chair Mary Hynes said. "Now we will, as costs rise, and budgets get tighter. That could mean smaller projects, delaying some projects or even canceling some."

Board members already suggested some of those cost-cutting measures, setting their sights on preschool classrooms that could be cut out of renovations, or the possibility of delaying some already-overdue projects.

That may inspire fear for some parents, but Board member Libby Garvey said it will be a familiar fear before plans for next school year are over: "This is a preview of the discussion we’ll have on the capital improvement plan."

<b>Competing for Money</b>

<bt>Jamestown, Glebe and Nottingham will be competing for renovation money with Arlington Traditional School, Williamsburg, Swanson and Kenmore middle schools and Yorktown High School.

Initial projections of costs for the renovations came to about $50 million, Hynes said, but those estimates are now on the rise, some by as much as 65 percent over initial estimates.

That’s natural, said Susan Robinson, Arlington schools’ assistant superintendent for finance. "We were looking at rough estimates before. That’s why we have this process, where we do design first," she said. That lets the school board decide which renovations and new buildings are really worth the cost, which one will need to be delayed, and which won’t make the cut at all.

Still, it will mean that school repairs and renovations that have strong backers within each PTA could get cut out of school system plans. Parents around the county say they’re preparing themselves for that eventuality.

"I like to think our chances are very good," said Maureen McManus, president of the Nottingham PTA, and a member of Nottingham’s building level planning committee. "But nobody can be confident, when we don’t know the needs of the other schools."

<b>Priority Process Set</b>

<bt>Adding to the uncertainty is the schools’ new priority-setting process for this year’s CIP. The system rates how necessary each building project is, based on a school’s capacity to handle future enrollment, the condition of the school and other factors.

The school system is hiring an outside consultant to look at the condition of county school buildings, along with the ability of other projects to handle each school’s problems. Hynes said she expected to see those assessments to be done in the next two months.

"Before we talked about prioritization, the assumption was, it’s a done deal," Cozzarelli said of the proposed renovations to Glebe. "I don’t think anyone thought about the possibility that it wouldn’t happen."

The cost of Glebe’s renewal was initially estimated at $9.1 million. Revised estimates put the cost at $10.6 million, approximately 16 percent more. The increase comes primarily from the addition of six preschool classrooms.

In the late 1980s, Arlington Public Schools began a process of renewing older schools, and continued that process with a consultant’s survey in 1996 identifying the schools most in need of repair. Glebe and Nottingham are the last two schools waiting to undergo that renewal process, McManus said, and parents at both schools hoped that added to the results of the priority process.

At Jamestown, PTA president Pia Clark said the school’s parents and staff had already steeled themselves in case renovations were delayed.

Clark, like McManus and Cozzarelli, represented her school’s PTA on the building level planning committee, a group of parents, faculty and school system staff dedicated to looking at needs for each individual building in the system.

Initial estimates set the cost of renovating the school at $3.4 million, but revised costs are now estimated at $5.5 million, an increase of 62 percent. The increase comes as a result of both higher costs for the project, and additional administrative space.

"I think the committee members all feel the same way: We did a lot of work, but most of that will keep," Clark said. "If we get funded for 2003, that’s great."