Arlington School Board: James Lander

Arlington School Board member James Lander.

Despite concerns raised by civic leaders over both costs and transparency, Arlington School Board members on Aug. 17 approved purchase of a home adjacent to Glebe Elementary School for use by emergency vehicles.

The presidents of both the John M. Langston Citizens Association and the Waycroft Woodlawn Civic Association, neighbors to the school, decried a lack of public involvement prior to the purchase.

“This was not a cohesive, inclusive process – it was done while people were on vacation,” said Alexandra Bocian, president of the Langston civic group. “People didn’t have enough time to be engaged or participate.”

School staff say purchasing the home at 1721 North Culpeper St. will allow for easier access to the elementary school by emergency vehicles. Currently, the only vehicular access to the school is via an easement from Capital Life Church, which funnels traffic to and from North Glebe Road.

“It sounds like we have a done deal,” sighed Sharon Dorsey, president of the Waycroft Woodlawn group, who nonetheless asked board members to hold off on a purchase.

“We still have questions; community involvement really hasn’t been applied,” Dorsey said.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy apologized for a lack of engagement, but School Board members said there wasn’t much more they could do, since negotiations for the purchase of property must be conducted in private.

“We certainly don’t want community members feeling like they’re not being heard,” School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen said. But, she said, “we need to be realistic about how much proactive communicating we can do.”

Two weeks prior to the Aug. 17 vote, the matter was discussed as an information item during a School Board meeting. Many in the neighborhoods first heard about the matter when it was covered in the newspaper.

“We had no time to get input from our residents,” Dorsey said.

Exactly what concerns about the purchase were held by residents largely were left unanswered; School Board member Reid Goldstein attempted to ask Dorsey and Bocian for more detail, but found himself shushed by Kanninen, who said it wasn’t board policy for a back-and-forth with the public at that point in the meeting. Goldstein earlier had said he was “troubled by the lack of notification and transparency.”

Murphy suggested that, in future, school staff could informally notify neighbors when a particular parcel was being considered for purchase. But that brought brushback from board member James Lander.

“That is a precedent that has not been done before,” said Lander, apparently concerned that the school system could be accused of bias if it informs some neighbors of some projects, while others are not informed.

Bocian also brought up concerns that spending $525,000 for a home (one that changed hands for $120,000 less earlier this year) at a time the school system was facing staffing and space needs seemed questionable.

That was an issue echoed after the vote by Tim Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, who said the purchase “raises questions about the School Board’s priorities.”

Wise also voiced concern that a modestly priced home was coming off the market at a time when county officials say affordable housing is Arlington’s biggest challenge.

“Were either county housing advocates or housing staff consulted?” he asked. “One arm of county government [the School Board] takes housing stock off the market, thus reducing Arlington County’s tax base, while another arm [the County Board] seeks more tax money to build just such housing stock.”

In addition to the $525,000 purchase price, school officials estimate they will need to spend about $50,000 on closing costs, demolition and grading of the site.