The six tennis courts at T.C. Williams High School will not cost $800,000 as originally planned. The latest estimate by the School Board places the cost closer to $1.2 million. The tennis courts were initially budgeted at $500,000, with $250,000 added to install the infrastructure for the potential addition of lights. At an Oct 16 meeting, the School Board passed a budget transfer of $500,000 for its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) to take funds from completed and unnecessary projects to pay for the increased costs of the tennis courts.
“The former [School Board] budgeted around $500,000 [for the tennis court],” said School Board Chair Karen Graf. “Three months later, they were told that there was a problem, the $800,000 [for the courts and lights] was not going to be enough. [The new School Board] was going to have to add in buffering, they’d have to go through permits and legal fees.”
Of the budget transfer, $358,000 came from a switchgear at T.C. Williams’ Minnie Howard Campus. According to Graf, the switch was replaced in 2009 but it was unreported. School Board staff has visited the location and verified that the switch was replaced in 2009. The rest of the funds were from projects that had been completed under-budget: two storm water management systems and making school bleachers compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to Dr. Alvin Crawley, Superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, the additional costs came from additional landscaping work, permitting inspections, and within project building contingency fees. The landscaping was requested by the nearby communities to decrease light and sounds from the courts.
“We’re trying to be good neighbors,” said School Board member Marc Williams. “I wasn’t involved in the original estimating process, but my understanding was that this was not a requirement in the original estimate.”
But for some members of the School Board, Crawley’s explanation of the additional costs was not satisfactory.
“Lawyers and contingency allowances are standard in construction contracts so don’t say they were unexpected costs,” said School Board member Patricia Hennig. “I am very tempted to say that we need to see a monthly report from facilities. What’s the project? What was it budgeted as? What have you spent so far? What’s left? What’s your estimated finish date?”
The CIP Budget Transfer sparked outrage among some Alexandria citizens.
“How in heck do you just find $358,000 lying around?” asked Jack Sullivan, a resident of the neighboring Seminary Hill neighborhood. “Are we going to find other little pots of money that they can tap into whenever they have a shortfall? It looks like sloppy work.”
Graf didn’t disagree that the underestimation of the budget reflected poorly on the management of the old board, but said this is part of the new School Board’s efforts to rectify those past mistakes.
“Since we’ve taken office, we’ve stepped through these questions and these hoops and have tried to correct the questionable actions in the past,” said Graf. “What you’re seeing is up fixing the process, and these fixes sometimes take form in what you’re seeing: budget transfers, better planning around projects, and better oversight of internal business practices.”
During debate, the transfer was opposed by Hennig and fellow School Board member Justin Keating.
“We budgeted them at $828,000, the board approved that,” said Keating. “This is not petty cash, the amount that we’re under. That’s a 60 percent increase. I have a problem with an extra $540,000 for tennis courts with lights when we voted for $828,000 to build and that turned out to be wrong.”
Keating voiced concerns that the School Board was voting to pay for tennis courts when Maury Elementary school had classrooms without windows and students at Polk had to take tests in the hallways because there was no room in the classrooms. However, Crawley noted that those were not approved projects in the CIP. According to Graf, the funding going into the tennis courts would otherwise be put back into the school’s emergency fund.
“We’re not taking away from any other project,” said Graf. “We’re not robbing students of an optimal environment. This is our flagship high school; we need to make sure our students have the resources that students on other campuses do.”
A motion was proposed by Keating to delay the vote on the budget transfer for another two weeks, but this was defeated. William Campbell, a member of the School Board, said that the delays on this issue have already called the board’s credibility into question for the community.
“Education is more than just being in the classroom,” said Campbell. “I don’t want to punish our kids and our community because we didn’t budget enough money.”
According to Crawley, T.C. Williams tennis players currently have to travel to Fairfax and other Northern Virginia schools to play tournaments. The students practice at the four courts next door at the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center & Aquatics Facility, but according to Graf those courts are in disrepair and, when the facility expands, the courts will be removed.
“The previous board had this on the CIP and had approved it over the years,” said Graf. “It came to us and we’re at the point where we need to execute on this. It’s been delayed over the past few years and the community’s been waiting for it.”
The vote on the budget transfer was passed 7-2.
“Members of the community will line up in droves at our podium to tell us how to spend half a million dollars,” Keating said to the board. “That’s a lot of money, we’re about to do a budget transfer of more than half a million dollars on five day’s public notice? That’s not right.”