Residents attending a meeting at the Arlington Mill Community Center last week expressed anger and dismay that Arlington Public Schools will not house its programs in a new facility on the site, and that school officials have yet to announce where they will be relocated.
Currently, the community center holds classes of the High School Continuation Program (HSCP) and the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP), in which the majority of students are non-native English speakers.
The facility is scheduled to be demolished, possibly as early as this fall, and county and school officials jointly decided that the new center will not contain the school programs.
More than 100 county residents attended the heated two-hour meeting on Jan. 10, with many complaining that they had not been consulted on the changes. Several speakers said the new center would not reflect the true needs of the communities abutting Columbia Pike.
“This is supposed to be a community center, and therefore should represent the interest of this community- two-thirds of which are Hispanic,” said Pat Thurston. “This school facility is very important for us. We don’t need another fitness center.”
Many of those in attendance were immigrants who said they walk to the center to take the courses. Marianela Castellon said she was concerned she would not be able to get to a facility elsewhere in the county and might have to drop out of the HSCP.
“If the programs leave, we will feel isolated,” Castellon said through a translator. “People will stop taking English classes.”
Although five county staff members and a representative of the Arlington Economic Development (AED) office were at the meeting to explain the plans for the new building, which is to be built through a public-private partnership, no school officials were present to clarify why the programs will be moved off-site.
“We understand there is a lot of frustration that REEP and HSC are leaving and nobody is here to say where they are going,” said Hunter Moore, a development specialist with AED.
Superintendent Robert Smith said that school facilities staff members who were invited to speak at the public forum were unable to attend because of the dedication of Kenmore Middle School the same night.
There is sufficient space in nearby schools to support the Arlington Mill REEP classes, Smith said. Additionally, there is still the possibility that the new community center could provide space for a few REEP classes, he added.
More than 300 HSCP students are enrolled in classes at Arlington Mill, and it will be much more difficult to find adequate space for them elsewhere, Smith said.
“We’re trying to find a space where they all can meet together,” Smith said. “It is more problematic than REEP, and we’re working on it.”
The new facility is scheduled to contain a gymnasium, arts studio, computer classroom and at least three “multi-purpose rooms.” The center will continue to hold preschool and senior programs, as well as county public health and Department of Human Services outreach programs.
THE COMMUNITY CENTER opened in 1997 in a former grocery store building, and county officials originally envisioned the facility undergoing major renovations within three to five years.
In the fall of 2001 the county formed a task force with community input to identify what amenities would be housed in the new facility. By 2003 the project had stalled, but new design work began in 2004 and voters approved a bond referendum in November of that year to finance the project.
Last September Smith and County Manager Ron Carlee agreed that it would be in the best interest of both the county and the schools if each division pursued its own plans for housing the various programs located in the center.
Given the rising costs of construction and other school building projects in the works, such as a new Washington-Lee High School, school officials decided it would not be fiscally responsible to be involved in a project that is estimated to cost between $20-25 million.
Arlington schools are experiencing a period of dropping enrollment, and therefore a smaller operating budget. “Since there’s lower enrollment and more surplus space, the schools can now accommodate additional classes in their current facilities,” Ken Chandler, an assistant county manager, said at last week’s meeting.
In order to allay the cost of the new center, the county has decided to pursue a public-private partnership, in which the county would continue to own the land but a developer would build the facility.
This will enable construction to proceed at a faster clip and for less money, Moore said. To meet Columbia Pike’s zoning regulations, the building can be no more than six stories tall and must include ground-floor retail. The building could contain apartments and condos, and officials have discussed the possibility of including a senior center.
The county has put out a request for bids and a developer should be chosen by the summer. “We’re looking for a partner who understands that the priority is a first-rate community center with something built with it, not the other way around,” Moore said.
County officials at the meeting said the new center will help spur economic development along Columbia Pike and will prove to be a boon for the surrounding neighborhoods.
MANY OF THOSE in the audience at last week’s meeting said they wanted assurances from school officials that the two school programs would be offered in facilities close to Arlington Mill.
“I’m worried students might have to quit the courses if they can’t afford to get there,” said Eileen Kenna. “We don’t know how far away they will have to go.”
Others interviewed said that moving the courses to another location may be inconvenient for some in the neighborhood, but would not deter them from getting their high school diplomas.
“People are so motivated that they will overcome any hardships to get an education,” said Inta Malis.
Though many of those in attendance were disappointed no school officials came to the meeting, they said they would request another public forum for residents to air their grievances.
“I don’t understand why they couldn’t spare one person,” Kenna said. “We need to know the plans and these people need to be assured that the classes will be taught.”