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Alexandria Mayor lights into School Board over long term planning and funding

Mayor Justin Wilson (left) and School Board Chair Michelle Rief (right) (image via ACPS)

As Alexandria’s City Council and School Board work to reconcile their budgets, Mayor Justin Wilson scolded School Board leadership for not taking a longer view of budgets and planning.

Alexandria’s School Board is asking for $21 million more than it received in the previous budget — for a total of $384.4 million — with School Board members adding $10 million in additions to Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s proposed budget. City Manager Jim Parajon fully funded the Superintendent’s budget, but did not include funding for the additional $11 million requested by the School Board.

The issue started with 1703 N. Beauregard, a swing space building to be used for George Mason and Cora Kelly students while those schools undergo renovation. But as the School Board asks the City Council for more funding to address capacity issues, Wilson said it’s frustrating not to see a longer term plan for what happens to that building after it’s finished as a swing space in 2029.

“I want to be able to tell people 1703 N. Beauregard is going to be swing space and then it’s going to be this, whatever this is,” Wilson said. “I saw from staff they say it’s going to be a middle school, you [School Board chair Michelle Rief] say it’s going to be Chance for Change, I hear from other board members it might be an elementary school.”

Wilson said that the City Council, which is dealing with its own budget woes, needs to see a clearer vision from the School Board as the two bodies collaborate on long-term planning.

“At some point, the Board needs to make a long-term set of decisions bout how we’re going to configure and align capacity,” Wilson said. “I recognize things are going to change and we need to evolve and adapt, but we need a direction. It can’t be nine people saying ‘maybe we will do this’ but we need to make decisions.”

Rief answered that the School Board is hesitant to plan too far in advance given how quickly some of the major issues can change.

“If you look back at 2019, we didn’t know the pandemic was going to hit,” said Rief. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with the arena deal. I remember back when we had this conversation in November, you were asking about how we plan after ten years… When you get beyond five to seven years it gets harder to plan. I think situations and circumstances change.”

Wilson called Rief’s answer “unacceptable”:

The answer that we can’t plan past five or seven years is not an acceptable for me. We have to. We have to figure that out.

These are generational investments. We are spending a generational amount of money. It takes us five to seven years in order to even plan and budget for a project of this size.

Think about how long Minnie Howard was in the plan. Think about how long Douglas MacArthur was in the plan. The MacArthur funding, which just opened, was a decision we made in 2016.

This stuff takes a long time. I agree that we have to be flexible and adapt and change, but we need to at least have a vision for what this is going to look like.

If you’re expecting us to raise billions over a period of time, we need the runway to be able to do that.

Battles between the two governing bodies, particularly over the budget, aren’t uncommon.

When it came to cost cutting, the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) said one of the biggest areas schools could cut is on “green building” initiatives. The tradeoff there, staff said, is that what’s gained in capital funding may be lost in long-term operating costs.

“The expectation is that we are meeting the City’s Green Building policy and Net Zero… we cannot do that with a $20 million reduction,” Kay-Wyatt said.

ACPS staff said geothermal wells could be removed from new schools, saving millions in capital costs, but it’s unclear how that would impact long-term operating costs.

While those cuts to the environmental efficiency of the buildings would still need to be studied and considered, City Council leadership said the top priority in those buildings needed to be on providing educational space.

“When we’re talking about schools and sustainability and green buildings and how much those things cost,” Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said, “I’ll be the other side right now and say: our education of our kids is really what the need is in these buildings; first and foremost.”

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