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Alexandria’s City Council and School Board clash in intense budget battle

The tense discussions between Alexandria’s City Council and School Board came to a head over Alexandria City High School’s Chance for Change Academy.

The joint work sessions are a chance for the school and city leaders to close the $7.5 million gap between the School Board’s $58.7 million request and the City Manager’s proposed $51.3 funding to the schools in the fiscal year 2024 Capital Improvement Program (CIP). But while both sides agreed relations between the two bodies are better than they’ve been in the past, the conversation still reopened old wounds between the two leadership teams.

Among the items discussed was $2 million in improvements to Chance for Change, listed on the Alexandria City Public Schools’ (ACPS) website as “a temporary placement for students whose matriculation in the traditional setting had been disrupted by various circumstances and also, based on a case-by-case basis.”

“I am not recommending we fund Ferdinand Day’s 5th and 6th-floor renovation. I’m not recommending the capacity for the [Chance for Change] lease space,” said City Manager Jim Parajon. “Those are two projects that are $7.5 million dollars. By my estimation, while they are important and needed, there are other considerations in the capital budget that we must do.”

Alicia Hart, chief of facilities and operations at ACPS, said the Chance for Change Academy cannot grow in the confines of its current space, citing a lack of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, parking issues, and a lack of outdoor space.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not we can expand alternative education programs, we cannot do that in our current space,” said Hart. “Every project we put forward in the CIP, from a school standpoint, is a priority.”

The comment sparked an intense back-and-forth between City and ACPS leadership.

“Every project being a priority doesn’t work in a CIP that has to be sustained,” said Parajon. “The bottom line is we have to make choices. I have 20-something departments and everyone is a priority, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s really important that we start to readjust how we think about what is the highest priority: because that’s the thing that has to get funded.”

Parajon noted that the Chance for Change funding was not included in the previous CIP.

“I’m not debating the need, what I’m saying is when we sit down — this is where it has to be a common thought process — it has to be an urgent need when in 2025 we have the largest potential debt service we have to incur,” Parajon said. “We can’t just add to that because there’s no fiscal ability to manage that.”

Parajon and city leadership faced some rebuke from ACPS leaders who said the city wasn’t putting the needs of students first.

“What we’re talking about with Chance for Change is children’s lives and children’s educational needs,” said Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt. “Pushing those down the road is going to further impact academic achievement and social-emotional growth, and I think that needs to be seen very differently than maybe another infrastructure like office space. We’re talking about children who are in need of services… Putting that off a year is going to further put them behind.”

School Board chair Meagan Alderton said that while not funding the expansion doesn’t mean the program will go away, it still keeps the program from being what ACPS has in mind.

“Is it going away if we don’t do something?” Alderton said. “I think the answer to that is no, not immediately. Is it meeting the needs for what we want Chance for Change to be? No, it doesn’t. I think it’s a two-sided question.”

But Alexandria City leadership stuck to Parajon and pointed the finger back at ACPS for ignoring the realities of budget crafting. According to Mayor Justin Wilson:

I’m inclined to agree with everything you said. The problem is I just heard it for the first time a couple minutes ago. [Kay-Wyatt] and I meet monthly… this has never been placed on the agenda. I’ve read through the entire operating proposal: there’s a couple glancing mentions of Chance for Change. I can’t even find on your website how many kids are at Chance for Change right now, and trust me I’ve searched and I know your website pretty darn well.

If there is a story to be told about alternative education and a change in policy and a different direction that requires significant capital investment: last time I checked I’m the Mayor of the city and I don’t know anything about it.

This is a conversation we need to have collectively and jointly before something just shows up in a CIP proposal and we’re told tonight horrible things are going to happen to kids if this proposal doesn’t get funded. That should not be the case and that says something is broken in the process.

The argument came at the end of a nearly three-hour meeting where City Council members repeatedly highlighted areas where there had been insufficient progress on long-term planning collaboration.

From ACPS having better access to the permitting facility to ACPS and City of Alexandria staff potentially sharing office space, City leaders said there are opportunities for greater efficiency that have been woefully underexplored. While ACPS staff said progress is being made, City Council members say it’s time to start seeing results.

“I’ve been around too long to say ‘we have the ability to wait,'” said City Council member John Chapman. “I’m very interested in seeing what we can get done in the next three months and the next six months.”

Chapman said that could involve more meetings or more retreats for City and ACPS leadership to hammer out issues together.

“I do think there are still opportunities for us to have bigger retreat-style conversations,” Chapman said. “We’ve tried that in the past and it’s worked. We need to build that in until we’re marching to the same beat. If we think about sports practice or band practice, if they’re not marching to the same beat, the band director is going to make them practice together, and that’s the way we have to look at it.”

At the end of the meeting, Alderton expressed concerns that the discussions between City leadership and the School Board have focused too much on bureaucracy and not enough on improving the quality of education for Alexandria’s student body:

What is being relayed here tonight — should it have been relayed sooner or later — is that that is a facility and only an example of one of many that is not meeting the actual needs of what we would like Chance for Change to be.

If we’re going to be candid, I think a lot of times we talk about a lot of things other than the actual education of the kids. Maybe a solution we need to get to is all of us, every single one of us, talking more about the education of the kids because we get bogged down in so many different things. If we don’t talk about that, I don’t know how that’s going to change. We get bogged down in facilities we get bogged down in philosophies, but we got to understand the educational needs of these kids and I will tear up right here because of it.

You know one thing I always say: what is the number one thing that the slave master wanted to keep away from the slave? A book. The ability to read. We have fought in this community about everything other than that. What I would say is: yes, let’s talk about all the things, but we gotta figure this out.

For Alexandria City Council members, though, the counterpoint is that bureaucracy is what holds the rest of the system together. According to Chapman:

I appreciate your words, I appreciate your passion: the focus has never changed.

The stark reality is: how we’ve been operating is not necessarily tenable into the near future. It’s not sustainable.

After this meeting, I need how to figure out how to fund what ACPS does, but also what DASH does, how to make sure we can have people of different incomes and different age groups in this community. I don’t want you or anyone to think I’m dismissing what you said. It’s powerful and it’s necessary… but I need to make sure that you have the resources… We’re not going to be able to build what we want without good planning and resources.

The FY 2024 budget is scheduled for adoption on May 3.