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.