Defying expectations, Arlington schools could be funding extensive renovations at nine schools next year with this year’s $85.3 million bond referendum.
Last week, schools Superintendent Robert Smith released a proposed Capital Improvement Plan, slating nine construction projects and design work on one school for the bond referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.
All nine were funded despite warnings by school administrators and school board members that this year might have seen the tightening of purse strings. But it the plan lives up to community expectations, Smith said.
"We have one bond to fund design, and another to fund construction. There was the expectation that the 2000 designed projects would be funded this year," he said at a press conference on Thursday, May 2. In the time since the schools were designed, however, costs escalated, increasing 20 percent from 2001 estimates. As a result, this year’s bond is the largest in a decade and a half.
Since 1988, voters have approved $218.8 million in bond projects for the schools. Over the course of the next six years, the schools will seek funding for $191.6 million in projects through bond sales.
Community activists have questioned the size of the proposed referendum. They say it could represent frivolous spending, especially as it would load up the next six years with bond projects, before some of this year’s projects are completed.
The proposal manages some of the construction by staggering timetables pushing construction on five schools back from the traditional start time at the beginning of the year. In fact, two of the schools on the 2002 bond wouldn’t begin construction until after May 2004.
Parents say they were disappointed by some of the requirements of the bond. But overall, they said, they were happier to see their child’s school included, in what could have been a tight bond year.
<b>"WE WERE NERVOUS,</b> knowing it was such a big chunk," Anne Riley said.
Parents at Kenmore Middle School were concerned the construction project at the school wouldn’t make the cut for this year’s CIP, said Riley, Kenmore’s PTA president.
The school, built in 1949, has not had any substantial improvements since 1991, and is due for complete demolition and replacement under Smith’s CIP – a project that would cost $33.6 million, almost 40 percent of this year’s plan.
It’s a substantial chunk of change, Riley said, and parents knew that it was vulnerable if the School Board had to narrow down the CIP. So they were relieved to see it included in Smith’s proposal last week.
That inclusion came with strings attached, however: Kenmore is one of the last school’s on this year’s plan slated to begin construction, in June 2004. "It was supposed to be June of 2003," Riley said. "But our number one concern was being included, and it still is. The Number One thing is, if we get the money, it will be built."
<b>GETTING ON THE CIP</b> is most of the battle toward getting the money, Smith said last week, "Arlington has a strong history of support for school bonds," he said.
That’s the message of this year’s $85 million bond proposal: all of the projects that have been designed will be built. Staggering the start of construction times was just a way to make it work.
The real effect, and the real message of that practice, was reckless spending, said Tim Wise. Wise, head of the Arlington County Taxpayers Alliance, said he was surprised that the school bond proposal for this year was $85 million.
"If both [the schools and the county] go out and get all the money they want, then we’re in the position of risking the county’s triple triple-A bond rating," he said. "I guess the schools really do think that money grows on trees in Arlington."
Smith’s projections are based on county tax revenues continuing to grow at current rates – a dangerous assumption in these times, Wise said.
"I just came back from a presentation showing numbers where we… could still hit a period of stagflation," he said. "If that’s the case, then the numbers may not be as rosy as they like."
But Smith said the CIP was constructed with an eye toward county bond ratings. School bonds are sold by Arlington County, and school debt is viewed by financial analysts as part and parcel of the county’s debt load.
"No one wants to endanger the county’s bond rating," he said. "School staff worked closely with county CIP planners."
<b>JUST IN CASE</b> the CIP needed trimming this year, school staff introduced a new priority setting system. Based on a number of factors, the system ranked each county school to determine which ones were most in need of renovation and repair.
The school board attempted something similar in 1996, but it backfired, causing much complaint from parents. This year’s model was well received.
"We were concerned that Yorktown’s budget not be given a lower priority," said John Duran, president of the Yorktown High School PTA.
But when the priority listing was released last week, Yorktown was the third most urgent school in need of repairs, and tops for reasons of overcrowding – a validation, Duran said.
"We’re pleased with the way we stayed up in the priority list," he said.
That’s to be expected, Smith said. "This was a more holistic approach than in ’96," he said. "Other things mediate the raw numbers in considerations."
For example, he said, Randolph Elementary scores high because of overcrowding. But that would be relieved in the next two years, as the school board conducts a redistricting of county elementary schools, pushing renovations at Randolph onto a future bond.
Yorktown parents were also "disappointed, but not surprised," to see that the schedule for extensive renovations at the school was not stepped up. The school will be the site of a two-phase renovation, with construction of the second phase not starting until 2008. Parents had hoped to see construction completed earlier.
"I’m sure disappointed about it, but we’re not surprised," Duran said. "There were other schools with priorities that they wanted to get done first."
<b>SOME OF</b> the school board’s priorities may need some revision, Beth Wolffe said.
Wolffe, currently a candidate for school board, also serves on the Arlington Civic Federation’s schools committee as well as the accountability and evaluation committee for the school system.
The priority system includes rankings for how well each school meets educational space guidelines, which are in sore need of review, Wolffe said. "For instance, at the middle school level, they include an individual computer lab for each grade," she said.
Those labs are included in designs for renovations at Swanson Middle School. But the money to build them might be better spent, Wolffe said. "Why not just wire each classroom for Internet access, and instead of bulky desk units, give the kids laptops," she asked. "Move the computers to the kids instead of the kids to the computers."
School systems do need to renovate school buildings, but needless additions add to skyrocketing costs. "Things like that add to the cost of projects and construction," Wolffe said, "without any thought as to whether the make economic, let alone educational, sense. That could mean choosing between textbooks and teachers" in the future.
Which was not to say that Arlington should skimp on the school CIP, she said: "We’re blessed to live in a community where almost everyone, including me, thinks that whatever it takes to get a first-class education, we’re willing to spend it."
However, she added, "I think sometimes we’re more willing to do that than look at whether what we’re doing makes sense."