Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Supporting School Swing Space

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Supporting School Swing Space

We have a crisis with several of our school facilities in Alexandria City.

I say this not just as a dad of three kids in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS). I am an active volunteer and I serve as the president of the Douglas MacArthur Parent Teacher Association. Additionally, I have spent many years studying ACPS’s facilities plans, beginning with my time as a John Adams Elementary representative on the recent Redistricting Review Committee.

Along with other Redistricting Review Committee members and other dedicated neighbors across the city, we regularly advocate for ACPS and the city to find solutions to overcrowding and failing structures at several of our schools. We've been fortunate to gain two new buildings recently with Ferdinand T. Day and Patrick Henry, although the latter has not been without extreme difficulties and imposition to the Patrick Henry school and the immediate surrounding community.

Unfortunately, we still have at least three schools that need to be replaced. Douglas MacArthur, George Mason, and Cora Kelly have been slated for complete rebuilds for many years. Additionally, Mount Vernon is plagued with issues and partially flooded again this week.

The current MacArthur building is 77 years old. The age would not be an issue if the building was properly maintained. Sadly, the lack of adequate maintenance over decades has resulted in a building that must be demolished and rebuilt. A rebuilt MacArthur would provide a learning space that meets the educational specifications of this century and is properly sized for its current enrollment capacity of over 700 students.

Ideally, ACPS would build a new school on another portion of the old school's property while the students stay in their existing building, move to the new space once it is complete, and then demolish the old building. Due to land conditions and constraints, building a new school on another portion of MacArthur’s property would increase costs by roughly 50 percent, or $25 million. This is not feasible for the city.

An alternative would be to move all the current faculty and students, as a group, to a temporary offsite facility (a.k.a., “swing space”) while the old school is demolished and rebuilt, a process that should take from two to three years. There were shockingly few available properties in Alexandria when ACPS recently went through a review during the development of the new Ferdinand T. Day school. Four properties were identified although ultimately only one was deemed suitable. There is virtually no appropriate available real estate in Alexandria to build or retrofit a facility for swing space.

While not ideal, the prudent solution is to utilize the newly available space at Patrick Henry Elementary School as a swing space. I know the process that brought the Patrick Henry community to this point has been very difficult. They’ve had an almost constant construction zone for several years and the school’s families and surrounding neighborhood have dealt with very painful traffic. But there are simply no other good options.

Importantly, the old Patrick Henry building had students using the entire building up until this January when they moved into the new school. That isn't to say that the old building is in ideal shape. However even in its current state, it is still much better than MacArthur. Additionally, ACPS has indicated it would spend on the order of $5 million to allow the building to be utilized for swing space during the construction of the new MacArthur building.

Utilizing the old Patrick Henry as swing space for MacArthur is the best option we have in the foreseeable future. My years of experience with this situation leads me to believe that if we don't move forward with this option, MacArthur won't see a new building for easily 10 years and it may be even longer before we see relief for George Mason, Cora Kelly, and any other schools that may eventually need to be rebuilt.

Many who oppose this proposal are focused on the relatively short-term impacts to themselves, but we must consider the greater good of the entire community. I, along with the other Douglas MacArthur PTA board members, support the ACPS proposal to consider use of the old Patrick Henry building for swing space during the construction of a new Douglas MacArthur school.

William C. Pfister Jr.

President, Douglas MacArthur Parent Teacher Association