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Students get on school buses at Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus prompted an evacuation and early dismissal, Dec. 10, 2021. (staff photo by James Cullum)

The Alexandria School Board approved its fiscal year 2025 $384.4 million combined funds budget on Thursday night and it is asking City Council for $21 million more than the previous budget. If it goes forward, Mayor Justin Wilson says that the request could mean a reduction in city services.

School Board Members tacked on more than $10 million in additions to Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s proposed budget, a move that prompted Board Members Meagan Alderton and Chris Harris to vote in opposition to it.

Alderton said that the budget is difficult for the Board to defend.

“For our add/delete session, the board essentially doubled the superintendent’s proposed increase, shifting our ask to an 8.1% city appropriation,” she said at the Board meeting. “City appropriations for the operating budget are not one-time asks when you’re asking for an additional appropriation in any fiscal year. You’re also asking for a promise that this level of funding can be sustained every fiscal year thereafter. So, an additional $10 million dollar promise is one thing, but the additional $21 million promise changes the game entirely.”

City Manager Jim Parajon’s draft FY 2025 budget will be unveiled next Tuesday.

Wilson said that he has not yet reviewed the ACPS budget, but said that the city must be clear about the details of this year’s budget process.

“The School Board’s recent budget decisions more than doubled the superintendent’s request for additional City appropriation, without any offsetting spending reductions in other areas of the budget,” Wilson said. “Funding that increase will require deep spending reductions to other critical services (public safety, human services, transportation or infrastructure), significant tax increases, or both. I look forward to dialogue with the School Board about the details of their request, and the options available for the two bodies as we begin our budget process next week.”

School Board Chair Michelle Rief said that the budget underscores the Board’s commitment to students and staff.

“This budget is a testament to our collective vision for growing a thriving educational community that supports staff and prepares our students for the future,” Rief said.

Wilson said that in the fall, City staff was projecting that Alexandria’s real estate tax base would increase 2.4%, which would have resulted in a $20 million budget shortfall if the School Board had approved what the Superintendent’s budget proposal included. But instead, the real estate tax base grew by 0.33%, the smallest rate of increase in 15 years.

“So, that gap of $20 million is in fact, much larger,” Wilson said.

Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt thanked the Board for their approval, and said that her proposed budget focuses on retention, with a full step increase and a 2% market rate adjustment for eligible staff. The school system is experiencing a staffing crisis, and the budget increases bus driver salaries to $24 an hour for new drivers and more than $47 per hour for senior drivers with more than a decade experience with the school system.

“I truly value the collaboration between the division and the Alexandria City School Board, and would like to thank them for their approval of the FY 2025 Combined Funds budget,” Kay-Wyatt said in a statement. “I also want to express my appreciation for our dedicated Financial Services team for continuing to work to find innovative solutions to the complex budget challenges the division faces. Together we will continue to advocate and work to produce a budget that best supports our students and staff until it is fully adopted in the spring.”

City Council Member John Taylor Chapman said that he wants to see how the Board has prioritized its allocations.

“Conversation is key for our school system, and getting good teachers,” Chapman said. “Past School Boards have been able to turn in a budget that is able to compete with getting good school teachers, balancing priorities and understanding the greater stake in the city’s financial picture. I would assume that is happening this year as well.”

Additions to the budget include:

  • $4.2 million for staffers who did not get step increases in fiscal year 2021 (sponsored by Member Abdel Elnoubi)
  • $307,000 for two deans of students at George Washington and Francis C. Hammond Middle Schools (sponsored by Tammy Ignacio)
  • $125,000 for a college and career counselor at ACHS (sponsored by Member Jacinta Greene)
  • $125,000 for a psychologist at ACHS Minnie Howard Campus (sponsored by Member Abdel Elnoubi)
  • $115,000 for an athletic trainer at ACHS (sponsored by Member Chris Harris)
  • $65,000 for a Dari/Pashto/English fluent-speaking family liaison (sponsored by Harris)
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George Washington Middle School (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Twenty three Alexandria middle schoolers and eight Alexandria City High School students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, according to a report that the School Board will receive Thursday.

There were also 213 incidents requiring a police response, including five weapons-related incidents, 43 students needing EMS assistance, 56 fights/assaults and three reports of sexual assault.

Weapons seized include three stun guns/tasers, a pellet gun and a knife.

There were 17 students arrested in the first two quarters of the 2022-2023 school year (last year), and 41 arrested in the final two quarters, totaling 58 arrests and resulting in a 26% increase in students arrested over the previous school year.

Incidents, calls for service and arrests in Alexandria City Public Schools (via ACPS)

Of those arrested so far this year, 20 of them were Black students, making up 55%.

There were 95 incidents reported at the Alexandria City High School campuses, 70 incidents at the city’s two middle schools (Francis C Hammond and George Washington Middle Schools), 35 incidents at elementary schools and 13 incidents at K-8 schools.

There were also 118 police calls for service — 56 at the high school campuses, 46 at the middle schools, four at K-8 schools and 12 at elementary schools.

Racial or national origin composition of arrests within ACPS (via ACPS)

Incidents in the first semester of this school year include:

  • 57 incidents characterized as “other” (including two students discussing weapons, four cases of disorderly conduct, two reports of public intoxication, one fraudulent 911 call)
  • 56 fights/assaults
  • 43 injuries that required medical assistance
  • Five confiscated weapons
  • Nine controlled substances
  • Nine threats (verbal/cyber/social media)
  • Six missing student reports
  • Four reports of suspicious activity
  • Three alarms pulled
  • Three reports of sexual misconduct
  • Six thefts
  • Seven reports of possessing prohibited materials
Semester comparisons of crime incidents in ACPS (via ACPS)
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Killers of the Flower Moon Academy Award nominations (image via Killers of the Flower Moon/Facebook)

Jack Fisk, an acclaimed film production designer and former Francis C. Hammond High School student, has been nominated for best production design at this year’s Oscars for his work on Killers of the Flower Moon.

Fisk was born in Illinois but the Washington Business Journal noted that Fisk graduated Francis C. Hammond High School in 1964, where he went to school with filmmaker David Lynch. Francis C. Hammond became a junior high school in 1979 and a middle school in 1993.

This is Fisk’s third nomination for the Academy Award for Best Production Design, having previously been nominated for There Will Be Blood and The Revenant. Fisk also designed all of Terrence Malick’s first eight films and worked on cult classic Phantom of the Paradise.

Killers of the Flower Moon racked up 10 nominations, including Best Picture, along with Fisk’s Best Production Design nomination.

Photo via Killers of the Flower Moon/Facebook

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Light pole at Hammond Middle School, photo courtesy Mayor Justin Wilson

Despite an earlier error that saw a hole dug into a lane of the track, the city says a light pole at the Hammond Middle School field is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Last week, Alexandria Living Magazine broke a story that new poles were blocking track lanes at Hammond Middle School. Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said a mistake caused a hole to be dug onto the tracks, but said that damage has since been repaired and the current light pole is where it’s located in the approved plans.

“The lights are exactly where they were approved to be,” Browand said. “There’s been no deception, no rogue staff decisions: the approved documents per the [special use permit] are 100% where the light poles are.”

Earlier documents showed the light pole located outside of the track, but Browand said the version ultimately approved by the City Council had the light pole installed inside the track.

Seminary Hill Association President Bill Rossello said some of the community frustrations come from a feeling that those changes were not clearly communicated.

“If you go to page 179 of the City Council staff report on Nov. 12 you will see the pole location is exactly where the poles are now,” Rossello said. “In eight public meetings, the poles were presented as being outside of the track. No one at the city ever verbalized [that change] to City Council. They did not verbalize that to the community and the ACPS resolution endorsing the project was based on the original location on the original [Special Use Permit].”

While there’s been some discussion of the current pole being located in the middle of a lane, the city said the area where the pole is located is not part of the track.

“It’s absurd on its face,” Rossello said. “Who would put poles on a track?”

Browand said the area where the light pole is located is not a marked lane and the lines on the track note that the area outside of the pole is considered lane one. The fence around the field also bumps out into the track.

“Plans for the Hammond expansion do not demark that area as a lane, which is where the fence post is currently today,” Browand said. “The fence post, where the lights are now, were never labeled as a lane… The first full lane is the first unobstructed lane existing there. People presumed that the area against the fence was a lane but it’s not a lane.”

The issue has also divided city leaders. Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said the position of the pole was vague in the report:

It’s unfortunate that the city has put our youth and community in this position when it comes to the installation of the new field lights at Hammond Middle School recently. I walked the track with community members last week who were frustrated with the city’s inability to install these lights in a way that did not detract from the safety and usability of the track and, honestly, the field.

The contractors the city hired to install the lights made several adjustments and corrections while trying to follow the city’s approved guidelines, so that the angle of the lights were specific to night field use and not bother neighbors, but in the midst of these adjustments, the poles needed to be installed on the inside track lane on one side. I want to make clear that the contractors are not to blame for this. I spoke with our city staff and the contractor’s foreman at length. It’s challenging with little clarity in the SUP regarding the placement of the poles on the track. Honestly, the SUP does not clarify in writing that the installation is taking away a track lane and the discussion did not highlight this element of the installation when it came before Council.

If you scrutinize the drawings depicted in the SUP, the drawings are also not detailed to the point of the location of the set back of where the poles are supposed to be, whether inside the field fenced area or outside, and questions if the distance met all requirements. Since the corrections it may [be fixed], but it has destroyed one if not two middle school track lanes that tax payers subsidized over 10 years ago because we needed a nice West End track… It would help minimize confusion, frustration, and incongruities in the future for our city’s staff to be more specific in their written explanations of what exactly the plan is for field lights installation that may affect track usage for our youth and the community.

Jackson said she hopes to see thick padding added to the poles for safety, similar to padding added to goalposts.

Mayor Justin Wilson said the location of the pole is a reasonable, if imperfect, solution:

Both my kids run track, and my son is now running in college, so I’m sensitive to the issue.

I went out there on Saturday with my daughter to inspect. The fence already obscructs the lane. It’s ‘Lane Zero’ as my daughter called it. It’s not a usable lane.

It was a reasonable, albeit not perfect, accomodation to reduce the light spillover for the neighbors on that side.

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Roughly 160 years after Pickett’s Charge, some in Alexandria are hoping to bring another defeat to Confederate Major General George E. Pickett.

Signs have popped up on Pickett Street, which is named for the general, calling for it to be renamed.

A history teacher at Francis C. Hammond Middle School posted images of the signs outside the school near the intersection of N. Pickett Street and Seminary Road.

The calls for the street’s renaming come amid a broader review of Confederate-honoring streets around the city. Earlier this year, Alexandria’s City Council discussed plans to rename roughly three Confederate-horning street names each year.

The city also later released a short guide for what those who live on one of those streets will need to do if the street is renamed.

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Speed cameras will soon be installed in three school zones in Alexandria (via ACPS)

Four Alexandria school zones have been selected for a pilot program to install speed cameras, according to a presentation prepared for a joint City Council and School Board meeting.

This is the first time Alexandria will use speed cameras, and the following locations were agreed upon by Alexandria City Public Schools, the police department and the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services:

  • Francis Hammond Middle School (Seminary Road, between Kenmore Avenue and North Jordan Street)
  • John Adams Elementary School and Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School (North Beauregard Street, between North Highview Lane and Reading Avenue)
  • George Washington Middle School (Mount Vernon Avenue, between Braddock Road and Luray Avenue)

“The cameras are expected to be installed this spring, after which the program will undergo a testing period,” city staff said in a report. “The program is expected to be fully active for the 2023-24 school year. The City will advertise the camera locations to the public over the next several months in advance of the program going live.”

The areas are all within 15 mile-per-hour school zones.

Reviewing the proposed school zone speed cameras is on the agenda for a meeting of the City Council and School Board this afternoon (Monday) at 5 p.m. in City Hall (301 King Street).

Last year, City Council approved the $400,000 speed camera program, after a child was struck and seriously injured at an intersection just outside of Jefferson Houston Elementary School (200 block of North West Street). City Manager Jim Parajon then reduced speed limits in a number of residential, business and school zones from 25 miles per hour to 15 mph.

Virginia authorized the use of speed cameras in 2020, and they are currently used in Arlington, Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax.

School zones in Alexandria (via ACPS)
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Updated at 5:55 p.m. The Alexandria School Board on Friday (October 20) received a recommendation to extend its agreement with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers at the city’s high school and middle schools until  the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

The School Board will vote on the matter at its upcoming meeting on Thursday, November 10.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school system and police department was set to expire at the end of this month. By mid-December, the School Board will also receive interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt recommendations on the reimagined partnership. Those recommendations will have been guided by the School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group.

“The SLEP advisory group may recommend changes to the MOU as part of their overall recommendations to the School Board in December 2022/January 2023,” Alicia Hart, the ACPS chief of facilities and operations, wrote in a memo to the School Board. “To this end, we are recommending extending the current MOU with APD through the end of June 2023. This extension will allow time to account for any potential recommendations that may come from the SLEP advisory group process as well as completion of the public comment process related to the review of the MOU.”

School safety has been a major focus within ACPS since full in-person schooling resumed at the beginning of the last school year.

ACPS began the 2021-2022 school year without school resource officers, after they were defunded by the City Council in last year’s budget. The first few months of the school year were punctuated by incidents with weapons in schools, prompting School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and then-Superintendent Gregory Hutchings to successfully plead to Council for SROs to return in October 2021.

Two months later, two SROs at Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus were put on administrative leave after being accused of having inappropriate sexual conversations with a former student. The school ended up not having SROs stationed at the King Street campus for the remainder of the school year.

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to an ACPS safety report.

Police Chief Don Hayes says that police are needed to contend with crews of violent kids within the school system, and Kay-Wyatt said that she will work collaboratively with the police to keep schools safe.

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Eighteen Alexandria City Public School students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, in addition to 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray.

That’s according to a School Safety Data report to be presented to the School Board on Thursday. The report reveals 18 arrests within ACPS between August and December, 34 injuries, and also a sexual assault allegation at the Alexandria City High School-Minnie Howard campus in October.

“Upon notification of the allegation, the alleged aggressor was removed from campus,” ACPS said in the report. “This student was placed into virtual learning as APD investigated the allegation. This student was officially charged with an offense related to this allegation on January 13, 2022.”

The report sheds light on a period that led School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. to plead with City Council to reverse course on its decision to defund the school resource officer program. The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were briefly defunded last year when Council redirected $800,000 from the program toward mental health resources for students.

There were 71 incidents at Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School during the reporting period, 59 incidents at ACHS, 49 incidents in elementary schools, and 12 incidents in K-8 schools. Some fights at ACHS and George Washington Middle School were even recorded by students and posted on Instagram.

“Fighting is really not the reason why we need school resource officers in our school buildings,” Hutchings told Council in October. “We are not trained to deal with guns or violence or gang initiation, or things of that nature in our school buildings.”

SROs were brought back in October, but two months later the two officers at Alexandria City High School were placed on leave after a former student alleged having “sexually inappropriate conversations” with them while attending ACHS, according to the Washington Post. The allegations are still under investigation. While there are no SROs at ACHS, police rotate in and out of the school throughout the day.

Incidents also include two robberies, three drug offenses, a bomb threat and 13 pulled fire alarms.

The report will follow a staff presentation on the formation of the School Law Enforcement Advisory Group, a 12-person body that will act as a liaison between the Board and police on the SRO and public safety issues.

Safety data the last two quarters of the year won’t be available until another report is released this summer.

Not included in the report is an allegation that a Francis C. Hammond Middle School student was caught selling marijuana joints to classmates last month. The middle schooler was searched and found to be in possession of 10 joints containing marijuana, and told police that she was supplied by an Alexandria City High School student, according to a search warrant.

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After missing quarterly reporting deadlines on school safety, Alexandria City Public Schools says it will deliver a report this week.

In a joint City Council/School Board work session on Wednesday night, some Council members were not pleased that ACPS has not delivered quarterly performance reviews on the school resource officer program. At the meeting, ACPS staff announced that the Board will soon receive a report on school safety data and the proposed school law enforcement partnership (SLEP) advisory group. The report has not yet been made public, and should be posted today (March 3) or tomorrow as an agenda item for the upcoming meeting.

The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were briefly defunded last year after a disjointed process that saw Council go against the wishes of the Board and redirect $800,000 from the program toward mental health resources for students. The vote created a rift between City Council and the School Board, but after numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools, School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. pleaded for their return.

“I think that we still have a long ways to go to make sure that we are getting this reporting done properly,” City Councilman Canek Aguirre said at the meeting. “I think what everybody agreed on last year is that the process sucked and there was almost little-to-no process.”

The memorandum of understanding between ACPS and the police stipulates a requirement that the City receive the reports, and that there should be meetings in August, November, February, and May of each school year for staff to “review performance and discuss reporting data.”

SROs were brought back in October, but two months later the two officers at Alexandria City High School were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS, according to the Washington Post.

There are no SROs at ACHS, which has more than 4,000 students and is the largest high school in Virginia. Still, APD officers are present at the high school, with officers rotating inside and outside of the school throughout the day, according to John Contreras, ACPS director of safety and security services.

Alicia Hart, ACPS executive director of facilities and operations, said that the lack of reporting is due to the program getting shut down last year. She said quarterly meetings between ACPS and APD are still being held.

“I absolutely agree there is an opportunity for us to make sure that we are caught up for the next go around,” Hart told Council.

Alderton said she previewed the report, and that it has some surprises.

“I had a chance to preview it, and I have to say, I think people are gonna find it very interesting,” Alderton said. “We’re not just looking at numbers, we’re looking at impact and who the impact is on. We’ll see some interesting information about disproportionality that may have some surprises.”

Councilman Kirk McPike said that the SRO program is city funded, and that there should be transparent discussions around school safety.

“This is a program that exists within the schools but it is funded in a part of the city budget,” McPike said. “We all saw last year what happens when the Council and the School Board roll in opposite directions on this issue, and it’s incredibly important that we find ways not to do that because we’re talking about safety in our schools, which is a paramount concern, not just for people on both our bodies but the entire city.”

The school year has been marked by violent incidents, including the shooting of a student at the McDonald’s at the Bradlee Shopping Center, a student being arrested with a gun on ACHS grounds, a student being arrested with a knife at ACHS, a firecracker incident that led to the evacuation of a football game, brawls inside ACHS and George Washington Middle School and more.

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A student was suspended last month at Francis C. Hammond Middle School for allegedly writing about ‘shooting up the school’ on Discord with another student.

On October 26, the school resource officer at Francis C. Hammond Middle School was alerted by school staff that the student was interviewed and suspended.

The incident occurred on October 26, according to a police search warrant affidavit.

In an anagram, the student first wrote, “nodt moce ot shcloo no wendsydya,” which, when rearranged, reads, “Don’t come to school on Wednesday.”

A classmate responded by writing: “bruh don’t be shooting da school dafuq.”

The student responded by writing, “I’m not [name] told me not to. But imma give it 2 weeks at the most.”

When asked to clarify what he was deciding, the student then stated “shooting up the school.”

The student, when interviewed at his home, admitted to police that he sent the messages and that he deleted them on his phone, according to the affidavit.

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