With one opportunity for public discussion, parents and taxpayers were remarkable for their absence at a public hearing on construction plans for Arlington public schools last week.
Only six speakers stood up to tell school board members what they thought of a six-year construction proposed early this month by school Superintendent Robert Smith, a plan that could lead to a $161 million bond referendum, with more than half coming from an $85.3 million request from schools.
Of the speakers who did speak their minds, most were supportive of Smith’s plan. Parents from Nottingham and Randolph elementaries, Kenmore Middle School and Washington-Lee said they were happy to see all nine schools most in need of repairs included in Smith’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan.
Still, the amount of the school request has board members considering cuts in school projects, cuts that could get the schools’ bond request closer to $70 million — still higher than any school bond in the last 14 years.
"We made some shifts and reductions," said board president Mary Hynes. "There’s still an interest in getting it below $80 million."
<b>ALMOST NO PARENT</b> was willing to voice complete support for CIP plans, and two speakers were bitterly opposed to school construction plans.
John Hoge, president of the Westover Village Civic Association, called for redistricting among Arlington middle schools before the board spends $5.2 million on an addition to Swanson Middle School. Smith had been almost criminally irresponsible in not looking at redistricting plans before budgeting for the Swanson addition, he said.
Swanson lies in the middle of Westover Village, and neighborhood residents have opposed the planned addition to the school since designs were finalized at the beginning of the year. The 19,070-square-foot, two-story addition would be a scar on the face of the building, they say, and would dwarf nearby houses, leaving them in shadows for most of the day.
Beth Wolffe, a candidate for school board who will face Hynes in November elections, said the amount of money in the plan was a sign of a school system with priorities out of step with the rest of the world.
"You should act responsibly, and reduce the amount of this bond issue," she said. "Cut spending, reorder priorities, and spread projects out more."
Similarly, the county’s Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission called on the school board to cut renovations at Nottingham Elementary out of the current bond referendum. Construction at the school wouldn’t begin until January 2005, after the next bond referendum, commissioners said.
<b>NOTTINGHAM WOULD LIKE</b> to see that change, said Andrew Teplitzky. Discussions about the project had always centered on students staying at the school as construction proceeded. But Smith’s CIP delayed construction so the school could move into the former Wilson School, at 1601 Wilson Blvd.
"The PTA has stood here for years to proclaim our support for the capital improvement plan and process," Teplitzky said. "We want to remain supportive." But the change in plans meant another delay for much-needed renovations, he said, and made Nottingham parents nervous.
Improvements to the school were included in plans made by the school system in 1994, and were supposed to be funded by bonds in 1996. But increasing costs for other projects meant that work on Nottingham, which was last renovated in 1962, was delayed again and again.
Parents at the school now say they want to see the project on a bond referendum, because a yes vote ensures that money will be available for renovations, and would put a start date on construction.
<b>BOTH SCHOOLS HAVE</b> been the subject of discussion, as school board members try to hash out a CIP that they’re comfortable with.
Nottingham parents should feel some comfort, Hynes said, because there have not been any moves to remove any single project from the CIP. "We want to keep faith with these communities," she said. "There’s a feeling in these communities that, ‘We’ve planned for it, now we don’t want to see it bumped.’"
Nevertheless, board members have been interested in making cuts, and have been looking at bits and pieces of each school’s plans, said board member Dave Foster. "We’re looking at selected changes in bonded projects," he said. "We’re probably not, for instance, going to put school bond money into underground parking for Reed [Community Center]."
In addition, the board is considering delaying some of the work on Kenmore, Hynes said. Demolition at the school can be delayed until the next bond cycle without delaying the beginning of construction of a new school.
The board has also discussed cutting construction of new early childhood classrooms, and funding more projects through capital funds in the schools’ annual budget.
But board members don’t agree about how to proceed at Nottingham. Foster said he was still pressing for an earlier beginning to construction, in January 2004, with phased construction keeping students in the school rather than moved to Wilson.
But Hynes said she wasn’t sold on the idea.
"I’ve seen a lot of these phasing plans. This is the most complicated I’ve ever seen," she said. "I have questions about whether phasing would work, but then you get into political considerations. I don’t know where the board is going to end up."