After Defeat of Jefferson Site Project: What Next?

After Defeat of Jefferson Site Project: What Next?

Unanswered questions divide County Board on proposal.

With the defeat of the proposed Thomas Jefferson Elementary School at the Arlington County Board, the public schools face overcrowding and a widening of the school “relocatables” program.

The Arlington County School Board’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary School plan was rejected in a 4-1 vote at the Jan. 27 Arlington County Board. By 2018, when the Jefferson school was projected to open, South Arlington will be overcrowded by 894 students. However, many on the County Board and the public have said the proposal had not considered enough alternatives and had not appropriately researched the impact of the school on the local community.

The Jefferson school was proposed with a total project cost of $57.2 million. School Board assistant superintendent John Chadwick said that South Arlington will need two new elementary schools, six additions to existing schools, or one new elementary school and three additions. Chadwick emphasized the urgency of the Jefferson school, saying that with increase in construction costs, the school will cost $1.7 million more ever year it is delayed, and that the cost of not building the school was $7 million in “relocatables,” modules placed around outside the school intended to provide a temporary classroom space. Additionally, if the school could hope to be open by 2018, he said work needed to begin on the project immediately.

Before the vote, the County Board questioned Chadwick about the impact of the School Board’s plan.

“I’m having trouble figuring out how South Arlington is materially helped by a grade school on the Thomas Jefferson grounds, especially if it’s a choice school drawing from all over the county,” said County Board member John Vihstadt. “And if it’s a neighborhood school, how could you conceive of a plan just blocks away from Patrick Henry Elementary and not far from Long Branch Elementary?”

A “choice” school is one students from across the county can choose to opt into instead of their own, while neighborhood schools only take students from within established school boundaries.

“I don’t think it would be a choice school serving the whole county,” said Chadwick. “And with growth around Columbia Pike, it might well be that we do have students that need two elementary schools there.”

Other County Board members expressed concerns for the impact of an additional 700 students on the local neighborhoods.

“You have not identified a location for additional parking needs?” said County Board member Walter Tejada. “Some days the lots are full because of different activities, certainly in the evenings.”

“We may have to find off-site parking, we’ve done that in other locations,” said Chadwick. “We haven’t looked into that yet.”

As the County Board encountered more and more items that the schools had “not looked into yet” or “would be decided at a later date,” they began to express more concerns about the proposal.

“There needs to be further exploration, especially when there are other options,” Tejada said. “We have to do traffic studies and we have to do environmental analysis.”

County Board members Vihstadt and Jay Fisette both said that the decision was not an easy one.

“I’m having difficulty seeing how the right answer is to build at Thomas Jefferson park,” said Vihstadt, who raised concerns that the study done by the Arlington School Board did not appropriately assess the school’s impact on the Arlington Heights Neighborhood. “We’re increasing the student population from 850 to 1,600… That’s going to have traffic ramifications and VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) has not been contacted about mitigants to access to Route 50.”

For Fisette, the school’s proposal was promising but incomplete.

“There’s much to like about the project as you laid it out,” said Fisette. “It doesn’t touch the Thomas Jefferson park as people know it. It leaves the middle school expansion options open. Though the motion is phrased as ‘no, not now’ it’s more of a ‘yes, if…’ and I believe the majority of the current school board will be able to work with this outcome.”

However, the decision by the County Board was not unanimous.

“We have a choice to say no and keep this parking lot for two to three more years, and in that time we will be behind by 45 trailers, because in two more years that’s how many we’re going to need,” said County Board member Libby Garvey, referring to the temporary school modules the schools have placed outside of the schools to provide additional classroom space. “Those trailers are going to be in South Arlington, in schools that already have trailers. We’re going to turn Arlington schools into trailer parks… In the past, we’ve said this is a ‘school board situation’. If we say no tonight, we own that situation. The community will come to us and it will be our fault.”

Garvey said she was not swayed by arguments made by other County Board members that they were not presented with enough information on the school’s local impact.

“I understand wanting more information on the process,” Garvey said. “There’s always more information, there’s always more processes, but at some point you have to make a decision. That’s our job.”

The School Board declined to comment following the County Board’s decision. Some in the local schools put the school’s failure, not on the County Board, but squarely as the responsibility of the School Board. Kelly Maguire, president of the Parent Teacher Association at the nearby Patrick Henry Elementary and mother of two children in the school, said that the School Board did not engage with the community or address concerns. Many parents and local citizens asked if the Thomas Jefferson school would be a choice school or neighborhood school and said they received no answer from the board. For Maguire, the school’s inability to answer what the new school would mean for the future of Patrick Henry was distressing.

“School Board needs to engage the community, talk to the community, and address those uncertainties,” said Maguire. “If they remain silent, they’re going to have a difficult time garnering support.”