Arlington Leadership Arlington hosted a discussion on overcrowding in Arlington public schools among county officials in the WETA building on Tuesday, Jan. 15, as part of its Speaker Series.
The speakers included Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy, member of the school board Abby Raphael, and vice chair of the fiscal affairs advisory commission Alan Howze. The discussion was moderated by the publisher of Arlington Magazine, Greg Hamilton.
Admission to the discussion was $50, and it was attended by members of Leadership Arlington and members of the county board and the school board.
Murphy delivered a presentation on the variables that led to the current overcrowding and outlined the county’s plan to increase capacity.
According to Murphy’s presentation, the dropout rate in Arlington County schools has decreased from 12.5 percent in 2008 to 7.7 percent in 2012.
The size of the incoming kindergarten and 1st grade classes for the 2011-12 academic year was 4,004 students, compared to the 1,436 graduating high school seniors.
Murphy said the enrollment growth rate for school system is just under 4 percent, which means between 800 and 850 students enter the school system each year, which Murphy compared to the size of a large elementary school.
The number of students enrolled in 2012 was 21,519 students, just under Arlington’s seat capacity of 22,953 students. By 2017, the enrollment is projected to be 26,429 students, with 13,921 of that being elementary students.
The enrollment for 2021 is projected to be more than 30,000 students.
According to Murphy’s presentation, there was a 41 percent increase, or 630 students, in the size of kindergarten classes from 2003 to 2012.
Murphy also talked about what parts of Arlington were the most crowded, and he said anyone could gauge it simply by driving around the county.
Overcrowding is worst in the Northwest quadrant of Arlington, which is currently 530 students over capacity. The northeast quadrant is 74 students over capacity, and the southwest and the southeast are currently within their limits.
All quadrants are projected to be over capacity by 2017, with the northwest quadrant being 974 students over capacity.
Recognizing the disproportionate growth of elementary school classes, the school board has decided to deal with that level first, followed by secondary schools.
The school board’s timeline for increasing seat capacity begins with an addition to Ashlawn in 2014 that would add 225 seats. A new elementary school at the site of Williamsburg Middle School would add 600 seats in 2015.
In 2016, additions of 225 seats to McKinley and Arlington Traditional School would be made. Another new elementary school that would add 600 seats is planned for the Carlin Springs/Kenmore site in 2017.
These additions total to 1,875 new seats by 2017, 10 seats less than the projected enrollment increase for elementary students would require.
“We certainly couldn’t come up with options that had all of the new seats in one location because we need to add seats throughout the county,” Raphael said. The school board talked about the idea of just doing additions at the different schools, and that was just going to be too much to manage — too many community processes, too many construction projects. So, we knew we had to have a combination of new schools and additions. “
Howze’s presentation looked at the funding for these projects. In November 2012, there was a ballot to approve $42.6 million in general obligations bonds for spending on the additions and new elementary schools.
The complete construction of Williamsburg Elementary School will cost $28.1 million.
Additions at Arlington Traditional School and McKinley Elementary will cost $1.6 million each. The design for a new elementary school at the Carlin Springs/Kenmore site will cost $4.5 million.
The design and construction of an addition at Ashlawn will cost $14.9 million.
The design and partial construction of the school will cost $4 million. HVAC and roofing at schools across the county will cost $6.8 million.
In addition to the money from the November 2012 bond referendum, the school board has a reserve of money it set aside to help address the overcrowding issue. Of this money, $14.9 million will go toward the design and construction of an addition at Ashlawn, and $4 million will go toward the design and partial construction of the new elementary school at the Williamsburg site.
,Penny Newquist, class of 2007 of Leadership Arlington said she found that the discussion gave context on how decisions were made, and that it was good there was a lot of hard data backing those decisions. She also thought the school board was doing well in terms of transparency.
“Involving the community is essential, and they’re doing that, and that’s very, very important,” Newquist said.
Roy Gamse, class of 2003 of Leadership Arlington, also thought the presentations did a good job of providing context, but he had some misgivings about the order in which tasks were being accomplished.
“I wonder though,” Gamse said, “about a process where they choose the sites for the schools and then they study the transportation impacts, and then they do the boundary changes, when the boundary changes are going to affect the transportation, and the transportation’s going to affect whether it’s a good site selection.”