The Alexandria School Board began the new year with four new members, but the main topics of discussion were old business — T. C. Williams and Minnie Howard renovations.
Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry and John D. Johnson, III, reported progress on both projects over the summer. “We have had many discussions with city staff on both Minnie Howard and T. C. Williams,” Johnson said at last Thursday night’s School Board meeting. “We have made a number of changes to the design of T. C. Williams and most Board members have seen them and, in many cases, prefer the new design that was suggested by the city. The building now has a more classical look.”
Johnson said that the school system will be prepared to submit its application for rezoning and special use permit on T. C. Williams around September 15. The city and school staff will hold a community meeting on that same day at T. C. Williams so that members of the public can view the plans and to make comment. The community meeting is part of the new process that the city’s Planning department uses on all large developments.
The application for rezoning and special use permit for Minnie Howard was submitted on July 1, but was not considered a “complete” or final application until Sept. 2. “We had hoped to go to the Planning Commission and City Council in October but will not be scheduled until November,” Johnson told the Board. “The deputy director of planning said that the staff does not have time to write the staff report for the October agenda. We will get you a revised timeline on Minnie Howard in the next few days.”
Dr. Sally Ann Baynard, chair of the school facilities committee, expressed concern. “We are not just another developer,” she said. “We are not a developer at all. We are us. We are the City of Alexandria. I would encourage my fellow Board members to talk to members of Council and see if we can’t get this expedited…”
Barbara Ross, deputy director of planning, said, “The schools’ application for Minnie Howard has just been finalized and city staff is expediting it so it can be heard by the Planning Commission and Council in November,” Ross said. “The proposed zoning changes will be heard at the same time. We have worked with the schools on this exciting project for several months and look forward to continuing our excellent working relationship with them.”
THE PROCESS CANNOT be expedited any more because a number of city departments must review the completed plan and comment prior to Planning staff writing a report and making a recommendation to the Planning Commission. This normally takes 30 days or more. Since the plan for Minnie Howard was not finalized until September 2, scheduling the matter for consideration in October would be difficult.
Expediting school construction projects in the recent past has caused problems. At George Washington Middle School, for example, a fire wall was neither designed nor built to meet the city’s code.
“We talked with the school staff about the fire wall at GW as early as January,” said Art Dahlberg, the city’s director of code enforcement. “We found that it did not meet code by doing proactive inspections and worked with the schools’ contractor to remedy the situation. We did not wait to be called to make a final inspection but went out regularly to inspect to ensure that there would not be any problems as the project neared completion.”
The fire wall separates the main building at the school from the new sixth grade center. “We build fire walls to separate buildings because if we had one continuous building there would need to be significant upgrades to meet our fire code,” Dahlberg said.
On Francis C. Hammond Middle School, expediting a project may have played a part in the contractor’s not putting rebar in the upper half of the walls of the auxiliary gymnasium. There is no word on when this repair might be made. “The auxiliary gym is not safe for use and we have no date on when it might be,” Dahlberg said.
BOARD MEMBER Kenneth Foran is also a member of the school facilities committee. He said, "I really did have some concern about our projects languishing and some of the unexplained delays,” he said. “However, T. C. Williams is one of the largest public works projects this city will ever see — on a scale with the Patent and Trademark Office as far as complexity is concerned. It is true that expediting projects does make the possibility of error greater in some cases, but I just want to make sure that we provide the best facilities possible for our students in as timely a manner as we can.”