Note: this information is current as of the May 25, 2021 School Board Work Session.
On June 24, the School Board will vote on its latest Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP describes major capital projects, such as new schools and school additions, as well as major maintenance and minor construction projects.
Normally, the CIP covers a ten-year time span and is updated and approved every two years. However, because of economic uncertainties created by the pandemic, last year the School Board approved a one-year CIP for FY2021, and this year’s CIP will only cover three years (FY2022-24). Beginning next year, we can expect a return to the normal ten-year cycle.
The Superintendent presented his proposed CIP on May 6; working off of the Superintendent’s document, the School Board will present its own CIP next week on June 3. It will hold a public hearing on June 10 in advance of its vote to approve a CIP on 6/24.
The three-year CIP currently under development proposes funding for a number of projects, including:
Under the plan, all Montessori PreK would move to this location and it adds a Montessori middle school program serving up to 175 students (71 of whom are currently at Gunston), for a comprehensive PreK-8 Montessori experience onsite.
It also expands the existing Arlington Tech option high school program into middle school grades: up to 450 Arlington Tech middle school seats would be created.
The number of full-time students enrolled in the Career Center’s various programs would increase from 513 (September 2020) to 1,400. And the number of part-time seats for CTE students from other schools who take a class at the Career Center would increase from 183 to 300.
The Arlington Community High School students (usual annual enrollment is approximately 285 students) would be relocated to a site not yet identified. It’s worth noting that this program has been moved three times in the last 20 years.
Including all the projects on the CIP wishlist would require voters to approve a $23.01M bond referendum next November and a $133.59M bond referendum in November 2022. It would increase debt service payments to more than 10% of APS's annual operating budget by FY2025--the same year that we are projecting a $111M gap between revenues and expenditures. It’s unclear whether the County would approve a move to exceed the 10% debt service ratio cap that’s been in place for some time.
Because of this, APS has developed two CIP alternative scenarios as follows:
Here are the questions I’d like the School Board to ask, and/or the public to ask at the June 10 CIP public hearing:
1. If the critical shortage we’re trying to address is middle school seats (deficit of 703 seats by FY27-28), what happened to the design studies on expanding Gunston and Kenmore that were presented to the School Board in April 2020? Each would add more than 500 seats at a fraction of the cost estimated for Career Center redevelopment (Gunston = $50M, which could be Montessori MS seats; Kenmore = $20M).
2. None of the scenarios currently contemplated for the three-year CIP includes accelerated upgrades for HVAC--and in what APS is calling Scenario #4, funding for routine HVAC replacement is eliminated after Spring 2022. Given community concerns about ventilation and filtration in school buildings, is this wise?
3. Looking at the CIP through an equity lens: if we eliminate funding for all HVAC, roofing, electrical, and windows upgrades after Spring 2022, which schools will be affected?
4. What’s the line-item breakdown for the $14.24M needed for improvements at The Heights? At various times, this has been described as parking, stormwater management, accessibility improvements, and the need for a playing field. What are the specific costs related to each of these elements? In particular, what is the specific cost related to the accessibility improvements, which are essential? What would be the cost difference if APS leased parking at one of the many nearby commercial parking garages vs. constructing 64 general parking spaces underground?
5. A really critical question asked by Reid Goldstein in the May 25 work session: If we do all these things, how much funding do we have left for anything else in a ten-year timespan (like necessary renovations to our older and/or overcapacity elementary schools)? The answer right now is “We don’t know,” because we don’t have the County revenue projections for ten years out, which are essential to figuring out APS’s overall bond capacity. Those ten-year County revenue projections should be available next year, when we’re a little farther out from the pandemic.
6. What would redevelopment of the property containing ACHS, Montessori and the Career Center really cost? The $184.7M figure is likely low. Wouldn’t we like to know before we approve this CIP?
There are several things I like about the proposed redevelopment of that property, not the least of which is providing needed relief for the 300+ students currently housed in relocatables and providing upgrades that will enhance CTE and Arlington Tech instruction. However, there are too many unknowns right now for me to feel comfortable forging ahead. It seems like it would make more sense to take one more year to vet this plan and include it in next year’s ten-year CIP. An additional year would allow us to answer the following questions:
I am also a little worried about approaching voters with a record-high $166.6M in bond referendums over the next two years in light of the frustration and anger that some members of our community are feeling about schooling during the pandemic. Arlington voters have traditionally been very generous about supporting our schools with bond funding, but this past year has been exceptional in many ways. Funding all the elements of the three-year CIP except the Career Center/Montessori/ACHS redevelopment would require only $48.42M in bonds in 2021 and 2022, which might be a more reasonable ask and might give us the time we need to answer the questions raised above.
Over the past week, I've been texting and calling voters about the School Board Caucus. Among the many gratifying messages of support are a fair number of messages that are highly critical of my progressive positions.
These voters feel I should be "kept far away from schools and any elected role" because I will "indoctrinate" students with "anti-American propaganda."
The "propaganda" in question is my belief that we have a moral obligation to ensure that ALL students feel safe, welcomed, and valued in their schools, no matter their race, religion, immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their identity.
Yes--I believe that systemic racism is a real thing and that our students need to know how to understand, navigate, and improve a world that's been structured by racial division. That's why I have unequivocally called for the removal of SROs from schools and it's why I continue to push the Virginia High School League to adopt explicit anti-racist policies and penalties following the Wakefield-Marshall incident earlier this year.
Yes--I believe that our LGBTQ students deserve safety and respect from their peers and adults. When my sister came out as gay during high school in the 1980s, there were no groups for gay students in schools and no official acknowledgement that LGBTQ students even existed. I now have a trans nephew who has been able to make his journey with the support of my phenomenal stepsister, other adults, and his friends. I am proud to support queer families like this one in our community.
Yes--I believe that ableism is a real thing in our community and society at large. Who can forget President Trump's overt mocking of a disabled reporter five years ago? That's why I called on the School Board to hold APS staff accountable last year when not one, but two new school buildings opened without the necessary safety and accessibility measures required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Yes--I believe in religious freedom. It's why I applaud APS's decision to change the school calendar starting next August so that we recognize and respect a range of religious holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, and Eid Al-fitr alongside Christian holidays.
Public education isn't perfect--we still have a ways to go in order to ensure that all students feel safe, welcomed, and valued in our nation's classrooms. But across the country, and even in progressive Arlington, there's a strong push to turn back the clock and erase the progress we've made.
We have an obligation to every child. Every. Child.
I hope you will join me in standing with all students and cast your ballot this weekend.
Arlington’s 26 square miles are a honeycomb of more than 150 school bus routes and approximately 2,500 school bus stops (pre-pandemic). The majority of APS students are bus-eligible, but thousands walk, bike, drive, or are transported to schools each day in a family car or carpool.
Transportation matters to me for several reasons. These include:
1. Cost: APS’s transportation budget is just over $22 million, or approximately $832 per student. Five years ago, the cost was approximately $650 per student. There are more than 3,000 parking spaces for staff and students on APS property, each of which costs between $15,000 - 75,000 to construct; in addition, APS leases parking for staff at some facilities.
2. Congestion: Nationally, 54% of school-age children are driven to school in a private vehicle, accounting for about 15% of traffic on the road during the morning commute.
3. Student health: Kids exposed to significant traffic pollution run a higher risk of developing asthma, other lung problems, and heart problems as adults. On the positive side, kids who walk, bike, or roll to school are generally more alert and engaged in learning during the day.
4. Climate: As a longtime local Sierra Club volunteer, I’m aware how our transportation choices (mine included!) contribute to climate change. As a mom, I worry about what climate change means for our kids. The transportation sector (within-County and through-County) is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Arlington.
I think Arlington does a great job encouraging residents to use public transit, walk, and bike--for example, we are one of only 15 communities nationwide to be designated a Gold Level Walk Friendly Community.
Arlington Public Schools is also working hard on the same front. In 2013, it launched APS Go!, a transportation demand management (TDM) program for the school district. The 2016 APS Go! Plan, even though it’s a few years old, is still a valuable read and many of its recommendations remain relevant goals for us to pursue. Additionally, APS participates in the national, grant-funded Safe Routes to School program to conduct projects and activities that improve safety, enhance accessibility, and reduce traffic and air pollution in the vicinity of schools. To support these efforts, APS provides families with resources like safe walk zone maps posted on each school website and a “SchoolPool” website that helps families form carpools, walking groups or biking groups. Additionally, the iRide program offers APS students a 50% discount on public transit via ART, Metrobus, and Metrorail.
All of this is great, but we can make it even better: more efficient, more convenient, more environmentally friendly, and more cost-effective. Here are some suggestions:
1. Fully utilize school bus capacity. More than 16,000 APS students are eligible to ride the bus, but only about 65% of these students actually do so on a regular basis (again, pre-pandemic data). At the elementary school level, 40% of school bus trips occur under 50% of bus capacity. We could improve upon this by:
2. Teach transportation as a life skill to all students. Gillian Burgess, a member of the Advisory Committee on Transportation Choices (ACTC) comments: “We teach kids how to swim--and nobody’s going to swim to their job.” Gillian believes we should ensure that all kids know how to ride a bike and that by fifth grade, all kids should know how to use public transit. Gillian shared the example of another school system that teaches about transportation choices and then sponsors a scavenger hunt field trip for its fifth graders: each small team is chaperoned by an adult and must use community public transit to search for landmarks and other scavenger hunt items.
3. Use ART and other public transit options to bus kids to school, particularly older students. The iRide program is a good start, but we can do more. In Alexandria, for example, students ride free on DASH buses and there are no school buses provided for older students where DASH bus routes enable easy commutes to and from school. Washington, DC, has gone a step further and doesn’t provide school buses at all, except for students with disabilities, field trips, and school-sponsored trips to and from extracurricular events. DC’s students ride free on the city’s public transit, including MetroRail.
I’m not arguing that we need to adopt DC’s solution, but we should certainly investigate when and how we could coordinate service with ART and WMATA and reduce fares for students.
For example, I live on McKinley Road just a few blocks from McKinley Elementary. There used to be a Metrobus stop, and then an ART stop, right in front of my house. Those routes ran to the East Falls Church Metro, and both routes were ultimately cancelled because of low ridership. Next year, the Arlington Traditional School will move into the McKinley building. Twenty-five percent of ATS students are from lower-income families, some of whom will rely on public transportation to reach the school and participate in things like parent-teacher conferences and PTA-sponsored events. Restoring a bus line that runs along McKinley Road past the school would help ATS, and it would help nearby residents who had lost their public transit access due to previous low ridership.
This is just one example of the ways that all community members could benefit from collaborative County-APS transportation planning and coordinated public transit service to schools and other destinations.
If you believe we need School Board members who understand all the issues facing us over the next four years--including transportation--then I hope you'll vote for me in next week's School Board Caucus. Voting happens online May 17-23, and you can find more information about how to vote here.
As I hope you already know, the Arlington Democrats are holding their School Board Caucus online next week from May 17-23. You’ll find the link to the voting platform, information about how to access in-person assistance from the Arlington Dems, and a brief video demonstrating how to use cast your vote online here.
This is the first year we'll be using an online platform to cast ballots and collect votes. Online voting will provide certain benefits, but it also raises a few thorny issues. I want to talk about one of those issues and explain how I plan to handle it.
In any regular, non-COVID, in-person voting situation, we have safeguards in place to ensure that no voter is pushed into voting a particular way. Candidates, campaign staff and political party volunteers are able to campaign and distribute sample ballots outside a polling place, but they can’t walk in with you and stand next to you at the voting machine.
In a world of online voting, however, this is now possible: a stranger can knock on your door, approach you as you leave the grocery store or the Metro, or engage you while you’re walking to the park with your kids. The voting machine is in their hands. They’re asking you to vote on the spot, and perhaps urging you to vote for a particular person. If you agree and take the mobile device to enter your personal information, there’s no guarantee that you’re even interacting with the official voting website--maybe this is a website someone’s created to look like the real thing.
I think we’ve had quite enough voting- and election-related conflicts in our country over the past few years, and I have no wish to do anything that would raise a doubt in anyone’s mind about the integrity and validity of the voting results.
That’s why you won’t see me or my campaign volunteers out during the Caucus with devices in hand, approaching strangers to collect their actual votes. I have encouraged the Arlington Democrats to add language to the Caucus Rules that would stipulate the following:
Voters in need of assistance are encouraged to contact the Arlington Democrats, vote at one of the Arlington Democrats-sponsored in-person voting locations, or reach out to a trusted friend or family member for assistance. If a voter is approached by a stranger offering to collect their vote, they should decline, contact the Arlington Democrats to report the incident, and then proceed to vote as described immediately above.
I am 100% in favor of efforts to promote broad participation in the Caucus and ensure that people without the means to vote at home have an avenue to do so; however, encouraging candidates and campaigns to collect votes is a recipe for coercion and intimidation, not enfranchisement. I am particularly concerned about how this might affect those with less privilege in our community and anyone who feels uncomfortable being approached in person during a pandemic.
If we think it’s a good idea to go door-to-door with mobile devices in order to boost voter turnout, then this should be done by nonpartisan Caucus officials, not by individuals who have a vested interest in the outcome.
So, May 17-23 you’ll see me and my team using every means at our disposal to ask for your vote--but we won’t be taking your vote, and I’m calling on my opponent to publicly commit to the same.
I have tremendous respect for the Arlington Democrats, who do so much to advance the party’s ideals and turn out voters for local, state, and national elections; but I believe that having candidates standing by the ballot box sets a troubling precedent and is a misstep I don’t want my party to make.