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County, Schools Prepare For Reed-Westover

Design, funding considerations begin to fall into place, but some residents and officials still have questions.

Over the course of two days last week, the Reed Community Center saw its design and its funding come through.

Renovations on the center, at the intersection of North McKinley Road and Washington Boulevard, will expand the center to include a library, a preschool and a teacher development center as a joint project of the schools and county government.

School board members saw final design plans for the first phase of the project at their May 16 meeting. Two days later, the County Board approved $2.9 million in funding for the project, as part of a $39.5 million bond issue.

But as local officials were putting the finishing touches on the center, community members are still questioning plans for the center, both the wisdom of the county/school collaboration, and the priorities behind the renovation’s phases.

<b>RENOVATION OF</b> the Reed Community Center would begin by tearing down the oldest part of Reed School, constructed in the 1930s. In that space, the project would add a 60-car parking garage underground, capped by a building that would serve as a public library and a staff development center for teachers.

Discussions of renovations to Westover Library were underway in 1998, and Arlington voters at that point approved a $5.8 million bond issue to pay for renovations to Westover and Shirlington public library branches.

In the intervening years, county staff approached school staff about sharing space, and costs, on two projects, Reed-Westover, and the Langston Brown center, which will also house a library branch and a school. In addition, the county is still in negotiations to split space at a new Shirlington library branch with a local theater.

Arlington County Board members approved a bond issue Saturday that would finance more than one-third of the renovations to the Reed Westover project, along with five other projects – bonds already approved by voters in 1998 and 2000.

<b>TO SOME,</b> the decision to house Reed Community Center and Westover Library in one place still seems like a questionable idea.

"Placing the library in a three-story structure on the Washington Boulevard end of the property is severely going to hamper what the schools may want to do in the future," said Roger Morton, former president of the nearby Highland Park-Overlee Knoll Civic Association.

Morton has opposed the joint county-school project because, he said, it will put too much county space in, leaving it up to schools to squeeze Reed’s current early childhood program into the remaining space.

"Is there any guarantee that the school facility is ever going to be built, or will the county just build the library?" Morton asked.

Dave Foster, School Board member, didn’t think Reed’s programs were at risk, but said he would withhold judgment. "I’d want to get the children’s school’s opinion on whether this fits their needs," he said. "But that’s a separate phase, down the road."

<b>INSTEAD, FOSTER SAID,</b> he was concerned about what was slated to be included in the schools’ portion of Reed Westover’s first phase – administrative space, and a teacher development center.

"Right now, the question is, can we afford to fund administrative space in a tight bond year?" he said. "That’s the issue for me."

Beth Wolffe, a candidate for school board running against current chair Mary Hynes, agreed with Foster. She said Reed’s scores on a new priority-setting system should be raising the same questions among school staff.

The school system used a 100-point system this year to determine what buildings made it onto the Capital Improvement Plan, and onto the bond for this year. The system ranked schools based on the age and condition of their facilities, overcrowding in the present and projected for the future, and other factors.

"Look at Reed," Wolffe said. The school scored 40 points, the highest possible, for its building condition – meaning it is most sorely in need of repairs. In addition, Wolffe said, Reed "scored 14 points [out of a possible 20] for educational inadequacy. But the first phase is almost exclusively administrative space."

Unfortunately, Foster said, it would be hard for the schools to fund Reed Westover without funding administrative space first. "It’s pretty closely tied," he said.

<b>THOSE ARE ALL</b> good questions, said Hynes, and she wants to find out the answers herself. But Hynes had questions of her own.

Plans for Reed would tear down the oldest section first, she said. Would that improve the condition of the building, Hynes asked, as the older sections of Reed were replaced by the new building? "If you take that oldest section out, does that change everything?"

As to the inadequacy of Reed facilities for the early childhood development, she said the same sort of question applied: What does the score of 14 mean?

"The part where the daycare center is, those rooms are generously sized to take care of small children," Hynes said. "But if you look at it through the lens of an elementary school, it’s certainly missing music rooms, computer rooms, a gym."

Finally, Hynes agreed with Morton: the school board could be painting itself into a tiny corner of the Reed Westover center. But she didn’t get that impression from the plans.

"The concept drawings I’ve seen give the school board some room to move," she said. "But we make decisions like that all the time, to do something one way, and then we’re stuck with it in the future."