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Candidates Seek Referendum on Second School

Two Republican City Council candidates think Alexandria needs two high schools and believe voters in the city should decide.

Keith Burner and John Reardon expressed their views in a letter to Mayor Kerry J. Donley. "The hallmark of any democracy is the ability of the people to participate in decisions which will affect their lives, their children's education, and their pocketbooks," the two wrote.

"The current $79 million proposal to destroy T.C. Williams High School will impact all three. In fact, we the people of Alexandria have not had a chance to examine your plan, let alone to explore alternatives in the light of a cold and reasoned debate. As a candidate for City Council, I ask that you permit such a public referendum on the plan, to be held at, or shortly after, the upcoming May 6 election for mayor and City Council members. My fellow City Council candidate, Keith Burner, joins me in this request.

"I understand that there have been School Board meetings on this subject. But only 15 percent of Alexandrians have children in the public schools, and of those, even fewer folks have kids attending high school. So, little attention has been paid to this issue up until now."

DONLEY RESPONDED to the request saying, "The proposal has several problems," he said. "First of all, we would need to acquire land in order to build another high school. Presuming that we could find such property, the cost would be around $1 million an acre. We would need around 30 acres of land or more for such a school. Then, there would be the cost of demolishing buildings that are currently on that land even before we could begin building another school.

"We would still have to renovate the current school no matter how many students attend it. We have been told that the cost of renovation is nearly that of constructing a new building. I don't see any cost savings there.

"Finally, there are the redistricting and educational issues that the School Board would have to confront if two high schools were built, not an insignificant issue. I just don't think that the plan is an option, but the proposal probably should have been taken to the School Board before it was brought to us," he said.

The current school serves just over 2,000 students, a large high school by any standard. Educational research indicates that the optimum size for a high school is about 850 students, meaning that, optimally, Alexandria would have three high schools.

Burner has seen the research. "Smaller school environments facilitate better learning for our children," he said. "Kids at T.C. Williams did not meet the 70 percent passing rate on three of the five Virginia SOL [Standards of Learning] exams last year. In Hampton, where there are 23,000 students in the school system, there are four high schools. Students in those smaller schools had a pass rate of 82 percent on the SOL exams. I think that we want to create the best possible learning environment for our kids. They deserve no less," he said.

JOHN PORTER IS the principal at T.C. He responded by saying, "We do have a large school. That is why we are looking at dividing the new school into smaller learning centers or ‘houses.’ We want students to feel that they are in a small school within our larger school."

The proposal is to divide the new high school into five distinct houses. The educational plan for these houses is still being designed.

T.C. has made significant strides in the past two years with the SOLs. "I am pleased with our progress and see only good things for the future," Porter said. "This year we are going to count Minnie Howard, T.C. and STEP scores together. Most high schools around the state are four-year programs, so this will allow us to make an apples-to-apples comparison," he said.

The proposal to build more than one high school in the city is not new. Before integration, there were three high schools — George Washington, Francis C. Hammond and Parker Gray. G.W. was 50-percent black and 50-percent white; Hammond, 99-percent white; and T.C. was 70-percent black and 30-percent white, just before the two other high schools closed. T.C. became a reason to accept integration as students got to know each other.

V. Rodger Digilio, a School Board member, said, "The idea of building one or more additional high schools comes up from time to time. As a matter of fact, we considered building an additional high school very recently but couldn't find enough land in one place to make that possible. T.C. has 28.5 acres of land, making it the largest school in the city, and it does not even meet the state standard for a high school.

"The cost of the land, the cost of construction, the cost of renovating the current school and the yearly cost of running an additional high school seem to make this suggestion prohibitive. Also, it would be extremely divisive. T.C., as the only high school in the city, has been a main force in bringing an economically and racially diverse population together," he said.

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein was a member of the School Board when this issue was discussed. "While Mr. Reardon and Mr. Burner are certainly entitled to their opinions, that is not my position," she said. "I fully support the rebuilding of one central high school in its current location.

"We have a unique opportunity to build a community center that would be the pride of Alexandria. Aside from the difficulty of finding suitable and available acreage, the cost of land is around $1 million per acre. The cost to renovate T.C., which is necessary, is close to the cost of building a new larger school on-site, and the cost of a second, smaller high school would be on top of that.

"Perhaps of most concern to me is the divisiveness that would occur in determining who would attend which school," she said.

If the matter was put to the voters in a referendum, Council would have to propose it. "Virginia, like most states today, limits the issues that can be brought before the voters by petition," said Tom Parkins, the registrar of voters for Alexandria. "Council can initiate referenda, of course."

These referenda can relate to any question or issue on which Council wants advice. "They are usually advisory and non-bonding," Donley said.

The likelihood that Council will initiate such a referendum appears to be small.