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Votes

School Bond Faces Rare Opposition

Some residents see voting for school bonds as part of their civic duty.

For the past two decades there has been one constant in Arlington elections, independent of who is on the ballot: school bonds have been approved by overwhelming margins.

School officials take pride in the fact that each of the past five bond proposals have passed by at least a three-to-one margin, even though less than 15 percent of households have children in the system.

No matter whom they support for Congress or County Board, and regardless of what projects are part of the bond package, residents have seen voting for school bonds as part of their civic duty, officials said.

“The school bond has been unifying and brought the community together,” said Scott McGeary, co-chair of the 2006 Arlington School Bond Committee. “It’s not about north Arlington, south Arlington or central Arlington. The community sends the message they want to continue the [building] program and continue the progress.”

This fall though, that strong community consensus is quickly unraveling. Opposition to this year’s $33.7 million bond package — the smallest in a decade — is crystallizing among some prominent school activists, especially those who live in south Arlington.

Opponents of the proposal argue that school officials should not include $24.8 million for Yorktown High School construction in the bond until they finalize design plans and have more accurate cost estimates. In a time of flattening school revenue, officials need to meet the immediate needs of Arlington schools, such as failing heating and ventilation systems, before starting costly new projects, those speaking out against the bond say.

“This is not an anti-Yorktown initiative,” said Reid Goldstein, chair of H-B Woodlawn’s parent-advisory committee. “This is a legitimate questioning of the priorities and costs looking at the bond this year.”

School officials acknowledge that there is more antagonism in the community toward the bond package than in any previous year. The Civic Federation’s Schools Committee voted 6 to 4 earlier this month against supporting the proposal.

“This is the first bond I’ve seen where there has been any kind of organized opposition,” Superintendent Robert Smith said.

THE BOND PACKAGE, which is $45 million lower than the one originally recommended by the superintendent in May, also includes $6.9 million in design funding for Wakefield High School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and $2 million for work on a new Career Center.

Rapidly escalating construction costs and a need to stay within self-imposed debt limits — along with flattening revenues due to the cooling housing market — have constrained what the school system can build in coming years.

Most of the funding in the bond is devoted to the second phase of construction on Yorktown High School. Originally an elementary school, Yorktown added a three-story wing in 2004 to alleviate overcrowding.

The facility still has inadequate space for students and the “physical infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life,” said John Vihstadt, the Yorktown PTA president.

School board members split this past summer over whether to include Yorktown funding in this bond cycle, or push it off until 2008. The majority of board members decided it was imperative to finish construction as soon as possible since a commitment had already been made to the community.

Postponing the start of construction by one year would have added an additional $6.7 million to the school’s price tag, which currently stands just under $100 million, said Sarah Woodhead, the school system’s director of construction and design. Construction is slated to begin in January 2008 and will take approximately four years.

“There was no reason to pause on Yorktown,” said School Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey. “All we would do is spend more money.”

Others in the community disagree, arguing that it is unwise to bond money for Yorktown when design work is yet to be completed and the school system does not have a clear picture of the ultimate costs.

School officials should first finalize how many classrooms the new school will have, how many parking spaces will be needed and the size of the pool before they bring a bond before voters, said Beth Wolffe, a former candidate for School Board.

School officials “have only the sketchiest of plans,” she said. “It’s not right to put a project on the bond when we don’t know what the scope of the project will be.”

Wolffe said she would like to see the School Board settle upon a more detailed design plan next year and then bring forward a Yorktown bond in November 2007. While bonds have traditionally been introduced only in even-numbered years, there is no reason the schools can present a bond to voters next year, Wolffe added.

SOME SOUTH ARLINGTON residents have requested that bond funding be redirected toward improving the heating and air conditioning systems at several of their schools. The school system needs to devote serious money to maintaining a safe learning environment at Wakefield and Jefferson, rather than “cobbling together some repairs to keep them limping along,” said Mark Buchholz, president of the Claremont Civic Association.

School Board member Garvey contends that ongoing maintenance work is never part of bond packages. That it does not make financial sense to replace just the heating and air conditioning systems at Jefferson and Wakefield, when the two schools will undergo complete overhauls in the coming years.

The bond’s supporters have been waging a highly coordinated campaign emphasizing that defeating the bond would set a very dangerous precedent and imperil future bonds. “It sends a damaging signal to the business community and all Arlington parents and children,” Yorktown PTA President Vihstadt said.

Those who are publicly opposing the bond package do not believe in the end it will be shot down by Arlington voters. Instead, they hope that school officials will heed their concerns and in the future complete design plans on a project before including it in a bond package.

“The message which should be gotten is the school system needs to be able to describe what we are getting and for how much before asking the community to approve this kind of funding,” Goldstein said.