Alexandria, VA

It wasn’t your usual first day back to school. Instead of waiting for their students to arrive bright and early, Alexandria City Public Schools started the 2020-2021 school year virtually.

“We are all in the field of education because we love kids, we love people, and going into the virtual plus model is a challenge for us because we primarily we like to make those connections and being face-to-face,” said Dr. Seazante` Oliver, the new principal at George Mason Elementary School. “(W)e won’t be able to get those hugs and those high-fives on the first day of school, and to be able to see those excited faces and smiles standing out front as we greet our families, and having just come to grips with that.”

Thank you to everyone who shared photos of their children for our first day of Virtual PLUS+!

Posted by Alexandria City Public Schools on Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Unlike last spring after in-person school was cancelled due to the pandemic, attendance will be tracked with its VirtualPLUS+ program and students will be graded on their assignments — just like a normal school year.

Oliver, who has worked at George Mason since 2012, is one of four new principals at ACPS, including Loran Brody at Charles Barrett Elementary School, John McCain at Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School and Penny Hairston at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Hairston, a former assistant principal at James K. Polk Elementary School, considers the her teachers and administrators to be a family of sorts.

“My theme for this year is ‘better together,'” Hairston said. “Even though we’re apart, and it’s kind of cliche, but we are better when we’re working on one accord, and working for the purpose of our children.”

Brody, a former principal at Takoma Education Campus PK3-8 in Washington D.C. for the last five years, said that support from the Barrett community has been strong.

“It’s definitely challenging and it’s definitely different,” Brody said., adding that his school has a testing team to fine tune how tests will be administered to students.

All day, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., jumped around Zoom calls to check in on students.

“We know this year will be different and it does not change the fact that we are all committed to each of you by making sure you are learning and growing, reaching your academic goals, and getting all the support you need to have a successful school year,” Hutchings said on social media.

https://www.facebook.com/acpsk12/photos/a.281772705295865/1828126753993778/?type=3&theater

Photo via T.C. Williams Minnie Howard Campus/Facebook

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Not long after approving a new school zoning change, the Alexandria Planning Commission unanimously approved the design for the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Much of the discussion and debate about added density was focused around the density concerns at the start of the meeting, but several neighbors spoke up with concerns raised throughout the process about how the larger school and facilities could impact the surrounding neighborhoods.

Lisa Porter, a nearby resident, pushed for Alexandria to require the installation of a traffic light at a nearby intersection that will turn from sleepy residential crossing to a junction leading towards the redeveloped school. The city agreed to return within six-12 months of classes starting at the school to evaluate the traffic patterns and determine whether a new traffic signal needs to be added.

Other nearby residents said they were concerned about increased recreational use of a nearby field.

Jack Browand, director division chief of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the use should be mostly consistent with current use of the park. The field will be no larger and is designed with use for those 10 and under only.

“Community use there today will continue,” Browand said. “We expect it to be similar to what we saw with improvements at Jefferson-Houston.”

Browand said that could mean some increase in drop and play activity, but there was no lighting on the field for extended evening use.

The main fight among Planning Commissioners was the lack of a net-zero energy policy that had been touted earlier in the building’s development, and the Planning Commission mostly backed Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig in requiring the net-zero policy be worked back into the project.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the project before headed to the City Council later this month.

Image via ACPS

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The coronavirus pandemic has put some of Alexandria City Public Schools’ plans on hold — like the redevelopment of T.C. Williams High School — but the fully developed plans for the modernization of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School are still moving full-steam ahead.

In the new plans, the current building from 1943 will be demolished and replaced with a new elementary school. The new school will be three stories with a synthetic playing field and outdoor play areas.

“The proposed school will allow for up to 850 students, faculty and staff, community meeting space to replace the existing school building for approximately 650 students,” ACPS said in its application. “Currently, up to 100 faculty/staff members are planned at this school.”

At the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, September 1, ACPS is scheduled to request a special use permit to demolish the existing building and construct a new school — requiring permits for additional density for a public elementary school, a permit to exceed the maximum number of parking spaces permitted, and an indoor and outdoor recreation facility and community center, and a modification to the rear yard setback.

If approved, the new school is currently scheduled to open January 2023.

Images via ACPS

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Morning Notes

Sheriff Makes Statement on Death of George Floyd — “This event is a tragic reminder that we, as a law enforcement officers, must do more to hold each other to the high standard of conduct that is expected and demanded by those we serve. We cannot stand by and remain silent when unacceptable conduct by our peers occurs, no matter how minor or major it is.  We must be better for ourselves and our community as lives depend on it.” [City of Alexandria]

Beyer Says Trump Unfit for Office — “The President is inciting violence against the journalists who are showing everyone what is happening at significant personal risk, and against Americans broadly. Trump is unfit for office, and his divisive words make this situation more dangerous.” [Twitter]

ALIVE! Provides Food for 1,060 Families — “We sent 1060 families home with produce eggs and shelf stable groceries today because of your support!” [Facebook]

ACPS Hires Three Principals — “Today Alexandria City Public Schools announced the hiring of three new principals for the 2020-2021 school year. Dr. John McCain will be the new Head of School at Jefferson-Houston, Mr. Loren Brody will be the new principal at Charles Barrett, and Ms. Penny Hairston will be the new principal at Douglas MacArthur. Learn more about them by clicking the links in the comments below.” [Facebook]

DASH Distances from Wraps2Go After Owner Makes Racist Tweet — “We do not support any ideals that promote division, discrimination or racism. We can confirm that we have no ongoing projects with Wraps2Go and will not be doing business with them in the future.” [Facebook]

Fire Chief Congratulates New Firefighters — “Recruit School 50 officially completed their initial training and will begin reporting to their assigned stations tomorrow. Because their graduation ceremony has been postponed, Fire Chief Corey Smedley visited to take questions and give them words of encouragement.” [Facebook]

Tenants and Workers United Advises Arlandria Residents on Rent — “Today we were meeting carefully with more than 100 members of Presidential Greens and New Brookside to follow the next steps to get justice in their homes in their apartment complex in these times of crisis we are in.” [Facebook]

New Job: Part Time Concierge — ” The Concierge will be greeting potential residents, families, visitors, managing both external and internal calls, taking and communicating messages. The Concierge provides an overview of community information to those inquiries in support of the marketing and sales efforts.” [Indeed]

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In a candid discussion on Facebook last night (Thursday), Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some of the largest impacts COVID-19 could have on Alexandria citizens and the city government.

How the outbreak could impact plans for schools, economics, and the health of the community were the top issues in Wilson’s “living room town hall”.

With $56 million less in preliminary estimates for the budget than was originally planned, Wilson said nothing was off the cutting table.

“Nothing is sacred,” Wilson said. “Nothing is off the table. Nothing is untouchable. We will see impacts to the capital budget and operating budget. One of the bigger projects is the rebuild at MacArthur [Elementary School]. My guess is, given where we are in the project, that would be a project we want to continue to proceed. However, we’re going to have to look at everything. If there’s a school project affected in the near term, probably going to be the rebuild of Minnie Howard.”

Those financial estimates are based in large part on financial estimates for business closures, which Wilson said is only likely to become direr.

“We are going to lose a lot of businesses in our city through this situation,” Wilson said. “The federal CARES Act is helpful, but won’t be enough. For several, revenue has gone down to zero, which makes payroll and paying rent impossible.”

Acknowledging the risk of coming across as callous, Wilson said the city needed to start preparing for how to help the city’s commercial tax base recover.

“We are looking at how we see around the corner,” Wilson said. “We need to prepare for the recovery and how we bring back commerce in our city. We’re going to have a lot of work ahead.”

For now, though, the number of confirmed cases in Alexandria continues to rise, currently sitting at 67 cases.

“The challenge with testing numbers: this is a picture of time,” Wilson said. “Because of the delay in testing and the incubation period, this is reflecting folks who were infected quite a while ago. We’re going to continue to see that before we see things get better. If you believe the models, we’re still several weeks off from the peak.”

Wilson said every expert he’s talked to has said Alexandrians should expect that number to continue going up. The state is putting together new models for the spread of the disease with the University of Virginia, Wilson said, which should be released early next week.

“This is reflecting infections that happened two weeks ago in some cases, because of the incubation and several days of lag in test results,” Wilson said. “We won’t see the impact of social distancing for a while now.”

In the meantime, the health department is interviewing each positive case and doing contact tracing to determine who else those people came in contact with and making sure that they track down and notify those folks, Wilson said.

Those with medical experience can help by volunteering with the Alexandria Medical Reserve Corps. Other organizations throughout Alexandria could also use help, and volunteers able to sign up either at Volunteer Alexandria or on the city website.

On a smaller scale, Wilson said many local residents have been using the stay at home order as a chance to get more gardening done. Wilson warned that yard waste collection has been suspended, meaning if residents want to dispose of those weeds they’ve pulled up they’ll have to do so by composting.

“When we have the ability to restart that we certainly will but right now we’re encouraging people to set up backyard composting to deal with that,” Wilson said.

Wilson also noted that because more people are staying at home, the city is seeing much larger amounts of trash being set out on curbs.

Living Room Town Hall

Posted by Justin Wilson on Thursday, April 2, 2020

Staff photo by James Cullum

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City Manager Mark Jinks says that his proposed fiscal year 2021 budget will be deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and predicts that proposed capital investments will take a hit.

“There will be notable changes in the budget, probably I would suspect capital investments,” Jinks told ALXnow. “We’ve got projects related to city facilities, school facilities that we could do differently. Maybe we talk to Arlington about how the Glebe Road Bridge could stay up as it is for another year. Maybe it can’t.”

That could mean also mean postponing a renovation of City Hall and the construction of the expanded T.C. Williams High School campus.

The plan to construct Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is still on track, but when asked about the T.C. expansion, Jinks said, “We’ll see.”

Jinks added, “We know that next year we’ll have revenue losses, because once we get through this pandemic, and then they start to ramp up, businesses will reopen and people will get comfortable about spending again, and then we’ll get back to our normal revenue total.”

On Saturday, the city declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. There are four positive cases in the city and one Alexandria resident infected in New York City.

The city manager’s proposed $2.1 billion, fiscal year 2021-2030 Capital Improvement Program covers city and school system improvements, including the $122 million waterfront plan, the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support Metro’s capital improvements and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

“The dollar total of the budget is going to need to change substantially,” Jinks said. “There’s a new reality. Hopefully, in a couple of months, everybody has taken really proper precautions, sanitized as best we can and don’t spread it, hopefully, contain it within that timeframe. In the meantime, the four functions of city government — police, fire, the jail and emergency communications are all operational and we’re all taking precautions.”

City council on March 11 capped the real estate tax rate for this year’s budget at $1.155 — potentially a 2.5 cent tax increase for residents. That means they will be unable to raise taxes above that amount in this budget cycle. City Council will adopt its budget on April 29.

On Wednesday night, the Council directed Jinks and his staff to prepare suspending the city’s dining and transient lodging tax penalties.

Mayor Justin Wilson has been in city government for more than nine years, and has talked with his regional counterparts about comparing the economic impact of COVID-19 to federal sequestration and the 9/11 attacks — put together.

“It’s absolutely surreal. I mean, this is something that we never imagined,” Wilson told ALXnow. “I think we imagined it, but just watching it play out in real time, it’s just been… Sometimes I feel like it’s a nightmare. And then, you know, you wake up.”

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The Alexandria School Board unanimously voted Thursday night to advance the “Forest” conceptual design for the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

After more than a year of community meeting and planning, Alexandria City Public School planners are now feverishly working with architect DLR Group to make last minute adjustments, including adding a small community recreational space co-located at the school, before the concept goes to the city council for approval next month.

The school system is in a race to meet the construction deadline of opening the school to the public in Jan. 2023, during which time hundreds of MacArthur students will use the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space.

“Yay, we’re going to build a school,” School Board Chair Cindy Anderson said to applause from her colleagues after the vote.

The tiered three-level Forest design is set back from Janneys Lane, and puts classrooms at the rear of the building, providing a view of nearby Forest Park for students. The Forest option was chosen over the “Y” option, which situated the school closer to Janneys and had student recreation areas in the rear of the school.

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said that the approval of the concept plan is far from the last step in the approval process before construction can begin. The final design will be submitted for approval this fall.

“It’s so important for us,” Hutchings told the board. “This is definitely a milestone for the work that we’re doing with Douglas MacArthur, but it’s not by far the last thing we’re going to talk about, and there’s a lot more that we’re going to talk about in terms of the schematic design that occurs after this process.”

The building will also have to adhere to the city’s Net Zero policy, meaning that it will have to generate as much energy as it uses, with geothermal water tanks and solar panels. This will be the first “Net Zero-ready” school in Alexandria.

MacArthur was built in 1943 to accommodate students of parents working in the Torpedo Factory during World War II, and became part of the city school system in 1947.

ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony said that the city opened up the height requirement at the site, which would allow it to go to four floors for future expansion — a controversial prospect given that the existing one-story school will be going to three stories. For now, she said, the school board will only have approved of a concept that will be subject to change.

“I think the interior of a building will evolve as we decide on all of the adjacencies for classrooms and where the corridors are and those types of things,” she said.

While the concept approved on Thursday night did not include the co-location of affordable or workforce housing on the site, as promised by Hutchings last week, staff are working to add a small a community recreation center.

“The co-location that’s going to happen on the site is primarily on the recreational side,” Anthony told the board. “And DLR has been instructed to calculate a square footage of a community-standard space in front of the school that is accessible from the outside for the community to use, and we don’t know how big that’s going to be.”

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Co-locating affordable and workforce housing is off the table at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, but it will be considered at all future schools slated for renovation.

That’s according to Alexandria City Public Schools officials and city staff who spoke to parents and community advocates at the school on Monday night.

The school board is set to vote on a concept plan for MacArthur on Thursday, Feb. 6, and Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said that in order for the school to meet its construction timeline of opening in Jan. 2023, all discussions of co-locating housing at the school have been shelved. However, the upcoming staff presentation on MacArthur says that smaller-scale options like installing recreational programming and facilities is still being considered.

“Douglas MacArthur will not have affordable housing at this project due to the timing constraints that we need to really stick to,” Hutchings said, adding that ACPS needs to define what co-locating means on school grounds. “If it’s going to be at a school site, what would that look like? What are the outcomes we’re seeking, and what are the benefits as well as the challenges with that so that we are able to articulate that when times of discussing the projects?”

City Manager Mark Jinks also attended the MacArthur meeting, and said that the city is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.

Co-locating services on school grounds has been done before, Jinks said, noting that William Ramsay Elementary School (5700 Sanger Ave) includes a recreation center and a nature center. Jinks has backed the idea of housing ACPS employees at schools that develop on-site housing alternatives.

“The whole idea is not new. The intent is to get the best use of our community assets,” Jinks said. “We don’t have a plethora of land to build horizontally that we would wish.”

Christine Coussens, a MacArthur parent, said Jinks’ example was a far cry from co-locating affordable housing on school grounds.

“We’re a school first,” Coussens said. “The examples that you have given are toward recreation. That supports our students. So, putting something forward, talking about co-localization and affordable housing is disingenuous to our community.”

Alexandria City Councilwoman Amy Jackson, who is also a MacArthur parent, said there has been a lack of transparency between the city and the public on the issue. Jackson is also a member of the MacArthur Modernization Design Advisory Committee.

“There hasn’t been the transparency — the communication — needed between the city and ACPS to actually say, ‘This is what we’re doing,'” Jackson told ALXnow. “There is a lack of communication and outreach in the community to get the word out. That’s it. If everybody knows what’s going on no one’s going to be frustrated, no one’s going to be annoyed, no one’s going to be upset and then be raging like the rest of the parents here at MacArthur.”

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(Updated at 12:40 p.m.) A proposal to co-locate affordable housing on the grounds of MacArthur Elementary is unpopular with PTA members.

The MacArthur PTA recently conducted a survey asking how current and future MacArthur families felt about co-locating housing or city facilities on the site of the soon-to-be renovated school, an idea encouraged by the city and under consideration by the School Board.

The survey yielded over 450 responses, according to PTA president Kristina Seppala, and revealed mixed feelings about some parts of the proposal and misgivings about housing in particular.

“About half of the respondents are open to non-housing co-location services such as a recreation center or day care services,” Seppala told ALXnow. “However, while open to other co-location options, a full 70% do not support housing on the site under any circumstance.”

Supporters say that Alexandria is experiencing an affordable housing crisis and must consider a variety ways to build more, including on government-owned land. At a joint meeting of city and school officials earlier this week, however, school board members expressed skepticism about adding housing to the MacArthur project at this stage in its planning. The school board is slated to vote on concept plans for MacArthur at its Feb. 6 meeting next week.

The PTA’s board has not yet taken a formal position on the matter and will take feedback from the survey into account when it does.

“I applaud the city and schools collaborating to provide services to the community,” Seppala said. “However, given the timeline for the Douglas MacArthur new build, the absence of a Joint Facilities Master Plan to guide the process of implementation, and a lack of substantial community input, it is not prudent to push housing forward on this project. There are simply too many unanswered, complex questions without the luxury of time to answer them thoroughly.”

The city council is ultimately expected to vote on the final design for MacArthur in September.

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Alexandria is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, city officials say, and that means using school property to try to address the crisis should remain on the table.

School officials, however, are reluctant to rush through plans for housing at schools currently set for redevelopment.

City Manager Mark Jinks said at a meeting last night that he still wants the city’s public school system to evaluate possibilities to co-locate affordable housing options on the grounds of schools slated for renovation.

“The most important thing is looking at the site and saying what’s possible and what’s not,” Jinks said. “Every single unit makes a difference.”

At a contentious joint meeting between city and school officials Monday night, school staff were asked to evaluate the feasibility of adding workforce and affordable housing to two concept plans under consideration for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School before the school board votes on a plan on Feb. 6.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that any plan proposed by staff that would negatively impact schools or their construction timelines should be shelved.

“But if we can have some consideration quickly — it sounds like in the next month or two — let’s see what’s possible,” Wilson said.

School Board Chair Cindy Anderson said that she and her colleagues were unaware that the city was contemplating such measures.

“I think we want to have our ducks in a row on this, but we’re not the housing administration, we’re the school system,” Anderson said. She recommended that the board’s work session with council in March be devoted to discussing the issue.

“I don’t think that rushing through some sort of process at this point is going to really help either the city or the schools. I think it would potentially damage and taint any process going forward,” said Anderson.

The issue created controversy last week when a feasibility study for George Mason Elementary School was mistakenly released, and included a four story apartment complex with 60 units on school grounds.

The decision about co-locating housing on ACPS property is ultimately up to the school board — the city council can not lawfully determine what goes on school grounds, City Attorney Joanna Anderson said.

Jinks said that any potential plans to co-locate affordable or workforce housing on school grounds will not have a “transformational” change to concepts that the school board approves down the road. He encouraged the school board to go ahead with their vote on MacArthur on Feb. 6 and said that city staff will be working with ACPS staff to determine if there is any opportunity to explore housing options between now and then.

Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr., apologized for the lack of publicly-available information leading up to the discussion. He said that it will be difficult for the school system to approve a concept plan and then alter it to accommodate housing options.

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