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School Board Continues Debating Construction Plan

During work session, members indicate they want money for Yorktown, Wakefield and Thomas Jefferson included in fall bond package.

The School Board has inched closer to finalizing a six-year capital spending program and has signaled its intent to put forward bond funding this fall for Yorktown High School, enabling construction to begin in 2008.

During a long and at times heated June 20 work session, School Board members also preliminarily agreed to include more than $6.5 million in design funding for Wakefield High School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School in the bond package that the public will vote on in November.

The board was expected to pass a new Capital Improvement Plan at the beginning of the month, but has delayed the decision due to an inability to generate a cohesive vision of what school buildings to prioritize.

“We don’t know what order we want to do these in, and that’s part of the issue,” said School Board Chair David Foster.

SOARING CONSTRUCTION costs have made both the school system and county reconsider the scope of some of their most ambitious projects. Both entities are in danger of bumping up against self-imposed debt limits, which are not supposed to exceed 10 percent of the yearly operating budget.

In response to the School Board’s inability to craft a CIP, the county has pushed back the adoption of its own spending plan.

“We have to have a better understanding of what the schools’ needs are, and articulate what is fiscally responsible for the county,” County Board member Barbara Favola said in a recent interview.

On July 6, the School Board hopes to vote again on a CIP proposal, with the county set to adopt its plan two days later.

Rising building costs, combined with the fear that higher debt levels may threaten Arlington’s top-notch bond ratings, have caused the Planning Commission, among others, to suggest that the county and school system forge a single CIP in the future.

“That is worth looking into,” County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said when asked about a unified capital program.

The School Board is likely to float more than $43 million in bond money this fall for the construction of a new Yorktown High School, which parents say is desperately needed. The school system has already spent more than $2 million on design work for the project, which may cost in excess of $87 million.

Yet a debate has raged amongst the five board members as whether to ask for the bulk of the funding this year, or wait until 2008. At the work session, three members — Foster, Libby Garvey and Frank Wilson — indicated that they would prefer the school system request the money in November.

“It would be very foolish” not to include the funding in this bond cycle “since we’ve started the project and have to see it through,” Wilson said.

Opposed to that view are School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes and board member Ed Fendly. Both said the board needs to endorse a more austere building program and spend more time finishing design work before moving ahead with construction.

“A slight delay for me is a price worth paying to try to take a pause and assess how to make better use of what we have,” Fendley said.

Board members also said they were interested in refurbishing Yorktown’s pools during construction, adding more than $6 million to the total price tag of the project.

THE MOST CONTENTIOUS issue in the CIP has been Superintendent Smith’s recommendation to set aside funding for a renovated Career Center building instead of allocating that money to overhaul Jefferson.

“Jefferson badly needs updating, with more natural light, cafeteria space and more classroom space,” Foster said in an interview.

To address those needs, the board is poised to include nearly $2.5 million in bond money this year to redesign Jefferson, and another $4 million to develop plans to rebuild Wakefield.

“It’s important for us to get a better handle not only on what needs to be done, but what it will cost” to do both projects, Hynes said.

If the board does approve such a bond package, it would be against the advice of Superintendent Smith, who favors an overhaul of the Career Center building.

“I would be concerned about spending $6 million on design for something we don’t know if we are going to do,” Smith said. “If it’s real far down the road, the design won’t be terribly useful.

All four of these buildings — Yorktown, Wakefield, Jefferson and the Career Center — need drastic renovations of their heating and air conditioning systems in order for them to continue to house students, Hynes said.

“We can’t have classrooms with mold growing in them, or [schools] that are saunas,” she added.

But with higher building costs eating away at the budget, where will the additional funding come from, Hynes said.