Those who descended on Saturday’s County Board meeting hoping to win support for more rather than fewer amenities in a potential fourth Arlington high school came away with no promises from board members.
If anything, those elected officials who addressed the subject did so in an effort to – delicately – tamp down expectations.
“We’re in for a really difficult conversation in this community,” County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said at the May 19 meeting, referring to capital-spending priorities on both the government side and the schools side.
With Arlington officials rubbing up against self-imposed debt ceilings aimed at maintaining the government’s AAA bond ratings, County Manager Mark Schwartz is likely to roll back previously proposed capital spending when he unveils an updated 10-year package this week.
Schwartz’s plan won’t deal directly with individual school items, but will give an inkling of how much funding the school system will be able to expect in coming years.
Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s plan for the Career Center property, sketched out earlier this month, includes adding a new high school there in 2026 – a date pushed back several years from previous expectations.
While the proposed cost of the additional 800 high-school seats is pegged at about $138 million in Murphy’s plan, the Sun Gazette reported earlier in May that, adding up all the possible amenities and factoring in inflation pressures, the cost of redeveloping the site and finding a home for a displaced Patrick Henry Elementary School could hit a quarter-billion dollars – an amount of funding the school system is unlikely to have access to.
Some neighborhood leaders want a new high school built concurrently with on-site playing fields, a pool and parking. If money is in short supply, School Board members will have to decide whether to scale back some of those amenities or attempt to phase them in over time.
That’s a prospect that has irritated residents of the Columbia Pike corridor, where the new school would be built.
“They don’t have the money or the land” to create a full-service high school on the career-center site, said Pete Durgan, co-president of the Penrose Neighborhood Association. Durgan wants the County Board to find the money and the land – the latter by using its eminent-domain powers, if necessary – to support a high-school campus that is on par with Wakefield, Washington-Lee and Yorktown.
(Many Penrose activists remain agitated over the decision in 2014 by County Board members to kill the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar project, which perhaps may explain the aggressive stances some have taken in dealing with elected officials on the school issue in recent weeks.)
Murphy’s 2019-28 school-system capital-spending proposal seeks County Board support for $430 million in bond-referendum requests over the next eight years, which would provide the lion’s share of cash for new school projects. Arlington voters have not turned down a school bond in decades, and referendums focused on education have tended to garner more votes in support than other bond-referendum topics.
Although the County Board will not be directly involved in setting priorities within the school system’s capital-spending plan, Cristol said she and her colleagues are keeping abreast of the situation.
“We’re acutely aware of concerns – we’re tracking it closely,” she said.
School Board members are slated to adopt a 2019-28 capital plan on June 21, with County Board action in July to set the amount of individual bond-referendum items on the November ballot.
County Board members signaled earlier this year that they will impose a greater degree of fiscal austerity on the government’s spending. They backed up that pledge by adopting a budget that saw no tax-rate increase and required some trimming of staff and programs. A rising-interest-rate environment would impact the cost of borrowing for capital projects, and those interest payments factor into the government’s $1.25 billion annual operating budget.
Libby Garvey, the senior County Board member and one who also had a long tenure on the School Board, suggested that community activism on capital-spending priorities could end up proving to be a double-edged sword if competing interests end up derailing the government’s ability to move forward on needed projects with expediency.
“Our greatest strength in Arlington is our citizen involvement. And our greatest weakness is citizen involvement,” Garvey said.