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Board Approves Washington-Lee Design

Residents voice outrage over cost overruns

The final design for Washington-Lee High School's new building met with school board approval Thursday night, but not without the stern criticism of many outraged by the project's rising price tag.

"The citizens of Arlington have watched as the cost of the new high school has gone from $50 million in 2004 to the $72.7 million reported in the brochure for last November's 2004 bond referendum to the current $95 million number," Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Tax Payer's Association, said to the board. "If you were the governing body of a private corporation, by undertaking this project, you would be risking your own jobs. However, all you are doing is putting Arlington's taxpayers at risk."

According to the school district's estimates, construction costs for the building rose about $12.4 million after a revised look at the design in April. It now totals more than $95 million.

"That increase is entirely driven by market increases in construction," said Sarah Woodhead, director of design and construction for Arlington Public Schools (APS).

Woodhead said the rising costs of steel and other materials on the international stage are causing many construction projects to go over-budget. "We are anticipating that escalation won't continue the way it has," she said.

But, Woodhead added, the future is uncertain.

"Our predictions are not a crystal ball," she said.

The new high school designs are 16 months in the making according to architects John Hill and Paul Clay. They include an auditorium, four floors of classrooms, a competition swimming pool, a gymnasium and countless other features. The new building is also equipped with utility systems that are more efficient. It will use, the architects said, 40 percent less water and 20 percent less energy. Administrators said the building that now houses Washington-Lee's 1,600 students is showing signs of wear and tear.

AFTER SOME CONTROVERSY over parking at the new complex, to be built on the site of the current school, designers said drivers are to use an old parking garage for commuters on nearby Interstate 66 that will be linked to the main campus by a pedestrian walkway. But, despite the amenities the new schematic brings to Washington-Lee, School Board candidate Bill Barker — who won the GOP nomination in May — said the board ignored warnings about its expected cost. The approved design, he added, required a zoning exemption from the county before it could be pursued. The trouble of building "Taj Mahal high school," he said, could have been avoided.

"Why was this project accelerated so much when it was well-known that the cost of construction and material was going up?" Barker asked.

School Board member Mary Hynes defended the project, saying that its scope is due in part to the district's intention to open the school's facilities to the public. Keeping class sizes down, she added, means a need for more classrooms.

"Our class sizes are, in general, smaller than you'll find elsewhere," Hynes said. "That has been a value of this community for as long as I have been on the board. It is part of how our values are playing out in the space's construction."

Many drew comparisons to other school construction projects now underway in other parts of the Commonwealth. Wise said a high school in Faquier County with almost the same number of students as Washington-Lee is running at a cost of $50 million. Yet Woodhead and Board Chairwoman Libby Garvey said such cost overruns are being seen as a national trend. Reports from newspapers throughout the United States — ranging from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Memorial, Mass. — are detailing the problems of school construction projects.

"There's a lot of comparing apples to oranges, grapes to kiwi fruits going on," Garvey said.