Ashlawn Elementary School design plan

An artist's conception of what Ashlawn Elementary School will look like after an expansion and renovation are completed later this year. The expansion has not been controversial, but county and school officials have been tripped up by complaints over changes to the use permit.

Arlington government and school officials say they will use lessons learned during the contentious Ashlawn Elementary renovation and expansion process to smooth future school-development planning.

“There’s a lot we can do better,” said Scott Prisco, Arlington Public Schools’ director of design and construction, during a mea culpa at the March 15 County Board meeting.

School officials were hauled before the County Board to explain why more trees were taken down as part of the Ashlawn expansion than had been permitted under a use permit approved by board members last year. County staff had approved the proposal, but it never made its way to the County Board or public.

“We’ve all learned a number of important lessons,” said a chastened Robert Duffy, chief of planning for the county government.

Top among them: “Communication is critical,” Duffy said.

County Board members on March 15 ended up approving changes to the use permit that allow the project to go forward, but not before both supporters and critics of the expansion plan had their say.

Neighbor William Johnson, who has waged an extended battle against several aspects of the project, suggested that even at this point, the school system was making “false claims” about the impact of the project on surrounding residents.

Johnson and others have been critical of creating a parking lot along the North Manchester Street side of the property, which is taking away open space but which school officials say is necessary.

Yet Deborah Candeus, who served on the building-level planning committee for the project, said critics, while vocal, don’t represent the general view.

Acknowleding that the process has been “frustrating for me,” Candeus said school officials “have had open ears to the community.”

“We are, by and large, in support of the project,” she said.

Acknowledging that “this has been a very tough project,” Ashlawn PTA president Kitty Nix urged County Board members not to further delay it.

“We have to stay on track,” she said, noting that the lengthy process has been costly and resulted in slight scale-backs to the project.

“Any further delay is going to take [more] money out of our renovation,” Nix said.

But Green Party activist Audrey Clement countered that the school system was getting preferential treatment from county officials, who would be likely to jump down the throat of a developer that had the same problems.

“The county must hold [Arlington Public Schools] to the same rules as everyone else,” she said.

The school system is adding 26,000 square feet of new construction to the existing 97,000-square-foot elementary school, bringing its capacity to close to 700 students. Ashlawn sits on a 7.1-acre site bounded by 5th Road North, 8th Road North, North Manchester Street and Wilson Boulevard.

School officials aim to have the 26,000-square-foot addition completed in time for the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Next up in the queue is a proposal to expand and renovate McKinley Elementary School.

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