After weeks of waiting, Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Katie Uston denied a petition to promote Alexandria Police Department Captain Monica Lisle to the rank of assistant police chief.
Lisle, a 29-year APD veteran, is a white, gay woman who has fought for more than a year to become the assistant chief of police. She sued the city after City Manager Jim Parajon refused a three-member city grievance panel’s order to promote her to the position after finding that she’d been harmed and discriminated against in her pursuit of the job.
In her decision, Uston wrote that City Manager Jim Parajon has the sole authority on hiring and promoting in Alexandria, and that the grievance panel exceeded its authority in demanding that he promote Lisle to one of two open assistant police chief positions.
Uston wrote in her decision that she would not restate the city’s “alleged failure to follow established procedures and standing practices in this selection process,” and that the panel went outside of its limited scope.
“While the panel may order such relief as it deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant (Lisle), the actual scope of that relief, while not clearly defined, is clearly limited,” Uston wrote in her decision. “Any relief ordered must be consistent with written personnel policies of the City. Nowhere is the Panel empowered to promote an employee. That power is instead reserved to the City Manager.”
Lisle’s attorney Will Thetford said his client was disappointed by the ruling and is looking at appeal options.
“I do hope the city keeps one of those positions open for her,” Thetford said. “The panel said that Monica Lisle should be in that position and is qualified for the position.”
A flawed process
The grievance panel was comprised of an Alexandria Police Department lieutenant, a deputy director of planning, construction and facilities, and a staffer with the Department of Planning and Zoning. They found on July 3 that APD violated 10 city procedures in the effort to fill the vacant position. Those violations included improperly posting the job announcement in the summer of 2022, appointing under-qualified officers to question candidates, appointing an all-Black panel that “improperly” considered race, and tanking Lisle’s application with unfairly low scores.
On July 1, however, Parajon’s officer amended city administrative regulations so that only he – not a grievance panel – can promote employees in the city of Alexandria.
Parajon and Police Chief Don Hayes then submitted affidavits to the court acknowledging that they discussed “concerns” that had been raised regarding the hiring process last October. Parajon allowed the process to continue despite those concerns, and he told the court that he had nothing else to do with filling the position until Hayes finally selected now-Assistant Police Chief Easton McDonald.
Former Alexandria Police Chief David Baker is an Alexandria Police Foundation board member, and said that the optics of the hiring failure reflects poorly on the department’s leadership.
“I wish someone in the decision-making posture in the city would have corrected whatever was going wrong in this process and redid the whole thing,” Baker said. “I know this department, and there will be lingering ill-will, finger pointing and mistrust. None of that is good for the city, and I find it sad and unnecessary and I wish they’d handled it better.”
For the last year, Alexandria Police Department Capt. Monica Lisle has been embroiled in a promotion controversy.
Lisle, who is a white, gay woman, says that the hiring process for the open assistant police chief position was faulty from the start. After going through the city’s administrative procedures to contest her disqualification from promotion, a grievance panel determined that she’d been harmed in the hiring process and ordered her promotion.
Just as a grievance panel found she had been discriminated against in the promotional process, the city government changed its regulations to block the same panel from ordering the city manager to promote her, ALXnow found.
Lisle sued the city government and her case is now before the Circuit Court. Her case, and an investigation into the city’s promotional process, calls into question how the city picks officers to lead the police department, which has separately been accused of skipping over employees of color for promotions.
The city says that Lisle’s case is simpler than it seems. Last week, City Attorney Rob Porter told Circuit Court Judge Katie Uston that her decision boils down to whether a city grievance panel has the authority to force the city manager to promote an employee.
The three-person grievance panel — a deputy director of planning, construction and facilities, an APD lieutenant and a staffer with the Department of Planning and Zoning — unanimously found that Lisle was discriminated against in a deeply flawed promotional process.
In the summer of 2022, Lisle applied to be assistant police chief. Her efforts were “quickly undermined by a series of violations of City policy, violations of law, and violations of past practice that form the basis of unwritten policy,” according to the grievance panel’s findings.
Easton McDonald was eventually hired as assistant police chief in January. There are still two open assistant police chief positions, and whether Lisle is promoted to one of the open positions now lies with Uston.
The city contends that the grievance panel’s decision to promote Lisle “flouts the City’s organizational structure set out on its Charter and the law and policies governing the City’s grievance process,” according to court records.
“If enforced, the decision would install her as an Assistant Police Chief, overseeing a third of Alexandria’s Police Department and reporting directly to the Chief of Police, although neither the Chief nor the City Manager chose her for the job,” Porter wrote in a memo in opposition to Lisle’s petition.
But that process was changed by the city manager’s office while the panel was deciding on Lisle’s case. The grievance panel hearing was conducted on June 24, and on July 3 the grievance panel unanimously recommended that City Manager Jim Parajon promote her.
On July 1, however, two days before the grievance panel’s decision, the city’s administrative regulations on the subject changed. The city manager’s office says the change coincided with the city’s collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire departments.
“The City was (and remains) in the process of updating the Administrative Regulations (A.R.) with the aim of publishing them on July 1st to coincide with our two (Fire and Police) collective bargaining agreements taking effect,” Ebony Fleming, the city’s director of communications and public information, told ALXnow in an email. “We updated the language of the referenced A.R. to make clear the city is required to comply with the long-standing state law charter section that the city manager has the exclusive authority to appoint and remove any City employee.”
The old A.R. policy, enacted by City Manager Vola Lawson in 1991, stated that a city employee can eventually file an appeal by sending the city manager a letter and having an informal hearing with the manager serving as the administrative hearing officer.
Under the old policy:
When the grievant shows a failure by the City to follow policies or procedures, the grievant may be entitled to relief if he/she also shows, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he/she suffered harm as a direct result of the failure. In such a case, the panel may order such relief as it deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant.
If the panel determines that the employee has not shown that he/she has been harmed as a direct result of the failure to follow policies or procedures, it may nonetheless inform the City Manager of the failure and recommend that steps be taken to ensure that the failure is not repeated.
The updated policy takes the city manager out of the equation, stating that the appeal will be heard by a department head and a representative from the city’s department of human resources. If, by that point, the issue is not resolved, city regulations now state that the grievant can contact the Supreme Court of Virginia to request the appointment of an administrative hearing officer.
The amended A.R. policy also removes the three-person grievance panel altogether.
The previous policy said that:
When the grievant shows a failure by the City to follow policies or procedures, the grievant may be entitled to relief if he/she shows by a preponderance of the evidence that he/she suffered harm as a direct result of the failure. In such a case, the panel may order such relief as it deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant.
The new policy states that the decision of the administrative hearing officer shall be “final and binding,” and includes the following new language:
Upon a determination that the grievant is entitled to relief, the Hearing Officer may award such relief as he/she deems necessary to remedy the harm shown to have affected the grievant, provided that such relief shall be narrowly tailored to address only the specific grievance and harm proven.
Hearing officers have no authority to award punitive damages or to promote, assign, or transfer a grievant. Awards of relief shall not detract from, alter, amend, or modify in any way any written City or department policy or procedure.
This change in administrative regulations affects all city employees, who are now unable to file a grievance regarding the hiring process, no matter how faulty. Additionally, APD captains are not subject to the collective bargaining agreement due to their high rank, and, like Lisle, they must adhere to city policies.
The policy still states that failure to promote a city employee is a “non-grievable” offense, “except where the employee can show that established promotional policies or procedures were not followed or applied fairly.”
On July 6, Parajon wrote a letter to the chair of the grievance panel asking for a “modified decision” and said that the recommendation goes against the city’s administrative regulations.
“As you are aware, the panel award must be consistent with all laws and ordinances,” Parajon wrote. “In its July 3, 2023 decision, the panel awarded Cpt. Lisle a promotion to Assistant Chief. This award conflicts with the City’s administrative regulation on sworn promotions, which authorizes only the City Manager or a designee to make sworn promotion appointments.”
The grievance panel responded to Parajon in a July 18 letter, and stated that it felt its award was “consistent with all laws and ordinances.”
“Upon further review the panel recommends that the City Manager appoint Captain Monica Lisle to one of the currently open Assistant Chief positions within the Alexandria Police Department,” the panel wrote in the letter.
The grievance panel determined that Parajon and Hayes were aware that the promotional process for the assistant chief job was faulty and did not stop it. The panel found 10 violations in city policy, including improperly posting the job announcement, appointing under-qualified officers to question candidates, appointing an all-Black panel that “improperly” considered race, and torpedoing Lisle’s application with unfairly low scores.
Last Wednesday, Uston heard the case and told the city and Lisle to expect her decision within 48 hours. On Tuesday (Sept. 5), she requested more information from the city on or before Friday (Sept. 8).
The City did not respond to questions on whether the city employees union was notified of the administrative change. A representative of the city’s employees union did not return calls for comment.
It’s been a scorching week in Alexandria, punctuated by two major crime events.
Someone was shot multiple times in an alley several blocks east of the Braddock Metro station last Saturday, followed on Monday afternoon by the city’s fifth homicide this year — the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man on W. Glebe Road in Arlandria.
It is not believed that the incidents are connected.
The Alexandria Police Department is now looking for a silver Nissan Rogue allegedly linked to Monday’s shooting.
No arrests have been announced from either incident, and this week Mayor Justin Wilson, City Manager Jim Parajon and Police Chief Don Hayes asked for the community’s help in identifying the suspects.
Top stories this week:
- Alexandria ditching ‘pay and display’ parking meters citywide (32618 views)
- Notes: Many federal employees who report to work Alexandria are still mostly remote (7448 views)
- Del Ray Gateway project construction to start before end of year, city says (6510 views)
- Construction suspended for Holiday Inn Express at former Towne Motel site in Old Town North (5346 views)
- ACPS ignores Gov. Youngkin’s recommended policies on treatment of transgender students (4829 views)
- DEVELOPING: Man transported to hospital in critical condition after shooting in Arlandria (4747 views)
- Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza opening before end of year in Old Town North, owner says (3857 views)
- Duke Street affordable apartment complex ‘Witter Place’ could be ready by late 2025, developer says (3598 views)
- Arlington man busted for allegedly selling stolen car to Alexandria man on Facebook Marketplace (2509 views)
Have a safe weekend!
Thousands attended Alexandria’s birthday celebration on the waterfront on Saturday.
For a minute it seemed that rain on Saturday would result in a washout, like last year when the event was postponed. But skies cleared and grass dried enough for the event to continue as planned.
The annual event at Oronoco Bay Park (100 Madison Street) is always held the first Saturday after July 4, and this year featured performances by Three Man Soul Machine, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, a declaration from Town Crier Ben Fiore-Walker, a poem from Alexandria’s Poet Laureate Zeina Azzam and brief speeches by city leaders.
City leaders also handed out more than 3,000 cupcakes before the grand finale fireworks display with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra performing the 1812 Overture accompanied by howitzers from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment.
Happy 274th Birthday to the best City on the planet! pic.twitter.com/hAHScp8GRK
— Justin Wilson (@justindotnet) July 9, 2023
Happy 274th birthday to Alexandria and 247th birthday to the USA!
(Fireworks footage taken from a previous year). pic.twitter.com/TOlJCQK4nj
— Visit Alexandria VA (@AlexandriaVA) July 9, 2023
— DC Fire and EMS (@dcfireems) July 9, 2023
Fireworks, cannon fire from the Army's Old Guard, free cupcakes served by Alexandria City officials on the Potomac River. #betterThanDC #Alexandria #AlexandriaSymphonyOrchestra #celebration #fireworks pic.twitter.com/GZ5oXDoogI
— Elissa Hackerson (@yankee_girl) July 9, 2023
Alexandria City Manager Jim Parajon’s $884.3 million fiscal year 2024 budget was unanimously approved by City Council Wednesday night (May 4), backing citywide pay increases, a fully funded school system and collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire departments.
While the real estate tax rate remains unchanged at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value, city residents will have to pay $308.70 annually for the stormwater utility fee — an increase from $294 last year. The budget, which goes into effect July 1, is an increase of 5.4% over last year’s $839.2 million budget. About 47% of it ($398 million) is dedicated to paying the salaries of 2,765 city employees.
“You’re seeing some some very historically significant investments in public safety,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “This budget is the first that is informed by the results of two very large collective bargaining agreements.”
City Council Member Kirk McPike said that funding the collective bargaining agreements will help the city fight rising crime.
“Our public safety officers should feel confident that this council has their backs and will continue to invest in these important services,” McPike said. “Those in our city who are worried about the recent rise in certain types of crime (should) take heart that we hear and share your concerns. We’re putting financial resources into ensuring that our police department has the officers and equipment it needs to address this challenge.”
The budget provides:
- A 7% market rate adjustment for sworn fire, medics and fire marshals
- A 6% market rate adjustment for sworn police and Sheriff’s Deputies
- A 2% increase in General Schedule and Sheriff’s Deputy pay scales
- A $4.5% market rate adjustment for non-public safety personnel
- Three new steps in the general pay scale, which is a 7% increase in salary potential
- 25 SAFER grant-funded firefighters
- Funding for Commonwealth’s Attorney staffing for more than $600,000 toward the APD body worn camera program, which launched in April
Parajon faced a $17 million budget shortfall when he started crafting the budget, but it was wiped away by unexpectedly high real estate assessments and $4.6 million in citywide efficiency reductions. He asked all departments for 1.5%-to-2% in budget reductions, with efficiencies like the outsourcing of city employee leave of absence reviews, benefits consulting, and city vehicle fleet repair.
“This adopted budget invests in helping our residents and businesses become more prosperous, safer, more engaged while investing in the infrastructure of our City, and investing in our future with climate action, education, housing and our youth,” Parajon said.
City Council Member Alyia Gaskins says that the budget sends a message to first responders and residents.
“I believe that we are saying to our staff in our fire and police departments that you matter to us,” she said. “We’re saying to our residents that we are committed to recruiting and retaining the best talent to keep you safe through fully funding the operating budget for our schools, and increasing investments in our summer youth employment program, as well as finding ways to waive summer fees for our lowest income residents at our rec centers. We are saying to our young people that you matter to us and we are committed to doing all we can to help you thrive.”
The budget also fully funds the Alexandria City Public Schools $258.7 million operating funds budget request, which will provide 2,600 ACPS employees with a 3% step increase. The request is a 4% increase ($9.9 million) over the FY 2023 budget.
“We have stretched the dollar and been able to keep our tax rate level,” Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said. “Close to a third of our budget is dedicated to our schools.”
Parajon’s budget also provides $2.4 billion in funding for the 2024-2033 Capital Improvement Program, of which $360,788,867 is dedicated for FY 2024.
Funded capital projects this next fiscal year include:
- $282.1 million for the city’s stormwater management systems
- $185.1 million for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s capital improvement program
- $65.6 million to support infrastructure improvements to be construction by the developer at the Landmark Mall site.
- $63.3 for citywide street reconstruction and repaving
- $48.2 for capital infrastructure improvements associated with the Waterfront Implementation Project
- $17.4 million to renovate Four Mile Run Park
Wilson said he’s in favor of a shorter budget process. This year, the City Manager presented his budget proposal in February, followed by two-and-a-half months of City Council work sessions and meetings.
“I will note this was a shorter process,” Wilson said. “Nobody seemed to miss the extra weeks that were part of the process. So, it might give us a path to even further shorten it in the future.”
Last night, the Alexandria City Council unanimously adopted the City’s FY24 Budget. Mayor @justindotnet said “Our budget is evidence of our commitment to the needs of our community.” Learn about how the City is investing in our residents and community: https://t.co/IXlI3piG8b pic.twitter.com/dZL0gULTkk
— AlexandriaVAGov (@AlexandriaVAGov) May 4, 2023
After more than a year of delays, the Potomac Yard Metro Station will open on Friday, May 19, Mayor Justin Wilson announced today.
Wilson made the announcement alongside Randy Clarke, general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority. He said that the city has been pushing to make the station a reality for more than a generation.
“On Friday, May 19, this station is going to open up to serve the public,” Wilson said. “That is an incredible accomplishment and one that is only possible because of this incredible team of city staff, of WMATA staff, of the contractor, all of our state partners, our federal partners who have made this happen.”
“I came to announce that today we’re opening on May 19,” Clarke said.
Clarke said that the station was first envisioned in 1983, when the Huntington station first opened.
“We’re happy to be partners with the city to accelerate economic development, bring more housing, bring more opportunity to deal with sustainability and equity, all the things that the city of Metro share as goals for both the city and the region,” Clarke said.
Wilson said that the project hits a number of policy areas for the city.
“This is our biggest economic development initiative,” Wilson said. “This is our biggest transportation initiative. This is our biggest Climate Initiative. This is our biggest infrastructure initiative. This is a huge initiative for the city and it hits so many different policy areas for us as a community, and that’s why we’re really excited.”
The station is located next door to Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, which is slated to open the first of three academic buildings in 2024. The Potomac Yard Shopping Center is also under massive development.
City Manager Jim Parajon said that the station is a critical factor for Alexandria’s continued economic growth.
“I think this work is signature to our economic development growth,” he said. “You already see it with Virginia Tech’s Innovation campus and some of the office development occurring right around the station… Economic growth helps pay for the services that our community needs and wants. It’s an amazing station and I’m looking forward to May 19.”
City Council Member Sarah Bagley said that the station is a dream realized for many residents.
“I think it means that we can do things we put our minds to, and that long expensive things are worth it,” Bagley said. “From an inclusivity perspective it’s wonderful. We’re going to have all these exciting buildings here. There’s healthcare here, there’s education here, and people will be able to access that.”
Council Member Alyia Gaskins said that the station will bring a lot of commerce to the City.
“When i think about this station I think about everything that’s going on around it, from Virginia Tech to the National Societies for the Blind to the Potomac Yard community,” Gaskins said. “This is an opportunity for us to bring people here, to have them experience our city and to stop and linger in some of these great developments that are happening.”
Council Member Canek Aguirre said that the art at the station will also bring visitors. Much of the art for the station has not yet been chosen and WMATA has to go through a request for proposal process.
“I’m super excited,” Aguirre said. “This is gonna be a destination site, and people are going to come just to be able to take pictures of the station and especially the artwork.”
Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said that the station is an exciting development.
“Tourism and retail in general will see lots of business,” she said. “Folks will come down and be able to get off here and go to the restaurants, see our Virginia Tech campus and more. It’s very exciting.”
Yesterday afternoon, Alexandria Police Chief Don Hayes and his staff walked through an Old Town neighborhood that was a crime scene on Monday.
“I’m here to reassure people that this will happen, but that this is still a safe neighborhood,” Hayes told ALXnow. “I just walk around in the neighborhoods knock on doors, talk to people. Sometimes it can last three or four hours.”
Alexandria’s gun-related crime surged 100% in 2022. Police recently unveiled a plan to install gunshot detection systems throughout the city, although the action needs City Council approval and is planned for next year’s budget. For now, the Alexandria Police Department’s short-term answer to rising crime is to increase police patrols and getting officers in neighborhoods with community cookouts.
There were multiple incidents of gunfire over the weekend, with three incidents on Monday alone. In the area Hayes visited on Monday, three juveniles were arrested after an estimated 40 shots were fired. The shots were fired in an alleyway in the 1200 block of Madison Street, a block away from the Braddock Road Metro station, and no one was injured. Earlier Monday, at 2 a.m., a 7-Eleven clerk was shot in the leg in a robbery. Later in the day, shots were fired at the Bradlee Shopping Center.
“I don’t walk around here at night anymore,” said a resident who lives near to where the shots were fired Monday. “I find myself on my guard all the time, and I’m on high-alert all the time. I read the news and I keep aware of my surroundings.”
City Manager Jim Parajon stopped by to hear what Hayes had to say.
“It’s tough,” Parajon said. “I mean, we’re seeing a rise in gun violence across the country.”
Hayes also plans to keep walking through communities affected by crime every week to talk with residents.
APD will also host 10 upcoming community cookouts, which are sponsored by a number of nonprofits and city agencies. The following cookouts will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m:
- Tuesday, April 25, at Ruby Tucker Family Center
- Thursday, April 27, at Princess Square in Old Town
- Tuesday, May 2, at the Shoppes at Foxchase
- Friday May 5, at Casa Chirilagua
- Tuesday, May 9, at Brent Place Apartments
- Thursday, May 11, at Southern Towers apartments
- Tuesday, May 16, at Hillwood Condominiums
- Thursday, May 18, at the South Port Apartments
- Tuesday May 23, at Andrew Adkins Housing
- Thursday, May 25, at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center field
(Updated at 4:49 p.m.) The Alexandria Police Department officially rolled out its body-worn camera program today, with the goal of outfitting 30 officers per month.
Full deployment is expected by January, and officers will immediately begin using the cameras after eight hours of training.
“The deployment of body-worn cameras is the result of years of collaboration within our Police Department,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “This is an essential transparency initiative and I’m excited to see it come to fruition.”
APD lieutenant Jason North is the body-worn camera program coordinator.
“As part of the deployment, APD will conduct comprehensive training for our officers on the proper use of body cameras, including when to activate and deactivate the cameras, as well as how to handle and store the recorded data,” said North, who is also chief of staff to Police Chief Don Hayes. “The department has also established guidelines and protocols for the handling, review, and release of body camera footage to ensure compliance with legal requirements and protection of privacy rights of individuals.”
In a release, APD said that the cameras are essential to transparency, and that they will “help enhance public trust, protect the rights of both officers and civilians, and provide an unbiased record of interactions between law enforcement and the public.”
“APD is excited to implement the body-worn camera program,” Hayes said in a statement. “We remain committed to building positive relationships with our community and continuously improving our policing practices to ensure the safety and well-being of all Alexandrians.”
City Council approved $2 million for the program in the current budget, which funded five new attorneys with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office to handle camera footages. City Manager Jim Parajon’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal includes three more positions totaling $258,000, as well as three “contingency” positions for $288,000 depending on the outcome of a workload analysis.
Last month, Parajon told City Council that the rollout of the cameras allows for the city to adapt to their use.
“Every time we add body worn cameras, we will have the appropriate support personnel to put a video and be able to go all the way through a process that’s been intentionally designed that way,” Parajon said.
News Release:: The Alexandria Police Department Deploys Body-Worn Cameras for Enhanced Transparency and Accountability.
The Alexandria Police Department is proud to announce the official deployment of body-worn cameras.
Read more: https://t.co/BA7txhQXXk
— Alexandria Police (@AlexandriaVAPD) April 18, 2023
The Alexandria Police Department will start rolling out its body worn camera program next month but it won’t be until next January that all the department’s officers are wearing them.
Thirty cameras will be deployed to officers on April 17, according to a staff presentation to City Council on Tuesday night.
“On April 17, we will begin our first deployments and will continue until every commander, supervisor and officer in this department is wearing a body worn camera,” APD lieutenant Jason North told Council. “We decided to be very strategic and intentional with the deployments. We will start on April 17 with 30 users. Of those 30 users, we will make that representative of our police department, which is 60% field operations, 30% investigations and 10% administration.”
Every month, 30 more cameras will be given to officers. Training takes eight hours and afterward, officers will then “go live” with them, North said. With more than 300 officers in the department, full deployment won’t be finished until January.
City Manager Jim Parajon said that the rollout of the cameras allows for the city to adapt to their use.
“Every time we add body worn cameras, we will have the appropriate support personnel to put a video and be able to go all the way through a process that’s been intentionally designed that way,” Parajon said.
City Council approved $2 million for the program in the current budget, including five new attorneys with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office to handle the footage. Parajon’s FY 2024 budget proposal includes three more positions totaling $258,000, as well as three “contingency” positions for $288,000 depending on the outcome of a workload analysis. Additionally, Parajon is asking for a one-time payment of $97,000 to upgrade the Alexandria Circuit Court’s information technology services.
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.