On Saturday, four different groups of stakeholders, School Board, City Council, staff and students, put shovels into the ground and symbolically began the construction phase of the building of the new T.C. Williams High School.
“Today is the culmination of more than three years of work by many people,” said Alexandria school superintendent Rebecca L. Perry. “This is going to be a world class education facility.”
Mayor William D. Euille saw things a bit differently. “I think it is important to remind everyone here today that it is not the building that makes a world class education, it is the people in the building,” he said.
Planning for the building began more than three years ago with a design charette, or brainstorming meeting, planned by former school superintendent Herbert Berg. The charette was held in early 2001 and brought 60 people together to look at various options for expanding the capacity at both Minnie Howard and T.C. Williams.
At the time, Minnie Howard renovation was expected to begin in 2003 and the T.C. project in 2004, with completion targeted for 2006.
At the time of the charette, school projections indicated that there would be 4,000 students in grades 9-12 by 2010. That projection has since been revised significantly downward.
One of the options that was considered at the charette and for some time afterward was the redevelopment of the entire Chinquapin/T.C. site. Many parents and educators preferred this option because it would have been the least disruptive to student learning.
This option called for “flip-flopping” the park and school. Thus the new school could have been built on the Chinquapin site, while classes continued in the existing facility. Then, the current high school could have been razed and a new park designed, with green space on King Street.
Claire Eberwein attended that first design charette and represented City Council on an original community steering committee for the T.C. project.
“I hope the project goes well,” Eberwein said. “My doubts remain and I am disappointed at the lost civic planning opportunities that this building represents.”
THE SCHOOL BOARD DISCARDED this option early on, preferring not to involve the city in the design and construction of the T.C. project. When planning began, school staff estimated the cost of a new T.C. to be around $70 million. By the time the project was submitted to Council for funding in March 2004, the price tag was $80.5 million. In June, that cost estimate was revised to $99.5 million.
In early 2002, teachers met with an educational consultant to begin designing an educational program for the new school. After two full days of meetings, the consultant prepared a report, which recommended “small school environments” within the larger school. As of today, that concept has been refined no further and the School Board has not yet voted on an educational program for the new high school.
However, the School Board has approved a building design. The current facility has 360,000 square feet of space. The new building will contain approximately 425,000 square feet of space. Parking spaces have been significantly increased while vocational education space has been decreased. Pilot educational projects are underway at T.C. and the School Board is expected to vote on an education program by this spring.
Concerns remain about the cost of the project and about potential soil problems that could lead to additional funds being required. “In an urban area with bad soil everywhere, it is reasonable to expect that bad soil conditions will be found on this site,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “While value engineering protects us to some degree, it does not protect us from unforeseen soil conditions.”
Council has told the School Board that there is no additional funding available for the T.C. project. “We have our own capital projects to fund,” Euille said. The school system has been told to find any additional funds in their own budget.
Council and members of the community will monitor the project carefully. The new school is expected to open in September 2007.