Here’s how budget sessions go: the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) puts together a list of funding requests. The city puts its budget together and tells the school system to get its numbers lower. There’s some haggling over prices and priorities, with the city eventually transferring a little more money into the schools and the schools announcing cuts to various programs or plans to reach the city’s funding requirements.
So the last thing School Board Chair Karen Graf probably expected to hear from City Council was that the schools should spend more.
The primary theme of the Feb. 16 City Council and School Board work session for the FY 2017-2026 Capital Improvement Plan was, after years of putting it off, that it was finally time to deal with the school’s capacity problems. The 2016 school year officially marked the schools exceeding capacity. At an elementary level, the FY 2016 actual enrollment was 8,239, while the school capacity is 7,492. The secondary schools didn’t emerge much better, with enrollment for 2016 at 6,431 and a capacity of 6,640. And while the rate of growth eventually tapers off, the school population is still expanding every year. The projected elementary school enrollment for 2026 is 9,971, which is 2,479 students over the current school capacity. For secondary schools, with a projected 2026 capacity of 8,829, the capacity will be exceeded by 1,215 students. While the rate is expected to slow, student population is expected to grow until 2030.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson recognized that for years the school board has been doing triage on the capacity and school condition problems, assessing where increased funding would be most critical and setting less wounded schools off to the side.
“You’ve educated us for years that we had a crisis … so we either go big or we don’t go at all,” said Wilson. “If I’m going to spend 30 million on Minnie Howard, I want it to fix that problem.”
Wilson asked the schools to lay out what they would hypothetically need to solve rather than just quickly fix their current problems. In the long run, Wilson expressed the seemingly prevailing opinion on the council, that it’s better to take the budget hit now and solve the problem rather than get drawn out into an endless mire of quick fixes.
But members of the School Board may have smelled a trap, and were a little wary when getting their hopes up for full funding.
“If you’re telling me you want to hear the blowout, I would give you a 10-year plan with two new schools each year,” said Graf, “That’s what we really need to deal with over 5,000 new kids … [but] it would be irresponsible of us to propose a budget that we didn’t think you could fund. This is our best proposal to make a dent. There are a number of things we could add to fix the problem, but frankly, I don’t think you guys can pay for it.”
With an unlimited budget, Graf noted that she’d love to tear down Minnie Howard and start over.
“It was supposed to be a quick Band-aid,” said Graf, “not a full secondary school.”
The school proposals are just enough to tread water. At James K. Polk Elementary, the school plans to add five modular units in 2017, adding 94 students to the capacity. Cora Kelly and Maury Elementary Schools are both slated for modernization and modular additions, with 220 students added to Cora Kelley with a yet undetermined number for Maury. MacArthur and George Mason are both slated for demolition and rebuilding with an additional 220 and 232 student capacities beyond the schools’ current sizes. Graf said that the demolition at George Mason will not affect the newly renovated portion of the building, around which the new school will be built. ACPS is also working on leasing commercial space to serve as temporary schools (called swing space) while their schools are being built or modernized. The biggest capacity addition, however, would be the construction of a new elementary school in the West End by 2019, which would add 700 students to the school capacity.
At the secondary school level, ACPS is planning on modernizing and expanding Minnie Howard, adding 257 students to the school capacity.
There were repeated references to Bailey’s Elementary School for Arts and Sciences in Fairfax, which took an empty office space and turned it into a school. City Manager Mark Jinks noted that a project like that has an advantage in timeliness, but Graf said those types of projects came at their own heavy cost.
“There are tradeoffs,” said Graf. “It still costs money to retrofit those offices.”
The potential for a project like Bailey’s Elementary School, using commercial spaces for specialized academics programs, would add 650 students to the school capacity. Lastly, next year the school will begin conducting a feasibility study to examine the possibility of a “middle college” program that would house 11th and 12th grade students in an accelerated program on local college campuses which would allow them to graduate high school with an associate’s degree. If feasible, the project would be implemented in 2019 and would add 200 students to the school capacity.
The one major topic of disagreement between the city and the schools, however, was the timeline for funding the school growth. Members of the City Council and staff urged for a slower, steadier 10-year plan to address capacity, while the schools pushed for more immediate action within the next three years with funding tapering off afterwards. City Councilman John Chapman said that the city had to take the longer view of the situation and balance its spending over the course of several years. School Board Vice Chair Chris Lewis argued that drawing out the solutions over the 10-year span would exacerbate the problem. The perspective didn’t necessarily break along even lines between the schools and city either.
“I keep hearing about kicking the can down the road, but that can is going to be expensive,” said Councilman Willie Bailey. “We laughed when Councilwoman [Del] Pepper brought up the Victory Center, but we need to think outside the box on these things. We really need to look at the Lee Center.”
Wilson noted that the realistic view of the school financing might kick back in once budget season starts for the city, but for now, Graf said she was satisfied that the city was recognizing the problem.
“We can’t keep looking at the city needs and school needs as separate,” said Graf, a sentiment shared by members of the City Council.
“We’ve got to be joined at the hip when we do municipal planning,” said Wilson. “On the city side and the school side, the first thing we have to do is stop calling it the city side and the school side.”
Meanwhile, the schools will continue to work through the final stages of the add-delete process before approval of the CIP budget, while the City Council is just getting started on its budget season. Final adoptions of the combined funds and CIP budgets will occur in the end of May.
“We have the potential, in this generation, not to pass this problem down,” said Graf.