Monday, June 21, 2010

The JH Proposal: More Questions Than Answers?

Tonight (Tuesday, June 22) at 5:30 p.m. the City Council will hold a joint work session with the Alexandria City Public School Board to discuss ACPS's proposed public/private partnership which would replace Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, the Durant Center and corner Head-Start facility with a new school and mixed-use development on-site. There’s even talk of 2.5 FAR and the relocation of ACPS administrative offices.

The Growler has been looking at every angle of this proposal – or at least the meager scraps of information available to the public – and concludes there are many red flags for our neighborhood.

The way this juggernaut is being fast-tracked — with a potential to be finished in five years – reminds the Cranky One of the Bland redevelopment and the fact that the financial imperatives of ARHA (and a City government that didn't want to be left holding the bag on Glebe Park) drove the plans to completion with only token community input. Is history repeating itself, a la ACPS?

Do neighbors want to see more buildings like The Monarch looming large from the sidewalk? (Yep, that’s the level of density some scenarios suggest. The pot is sweet!) In a neighborhood with scant open space, would residents be content with a risible rooftop substitute or keeping the large field that is much-used by organized weekend sports activities, impromptu soccer matches and offers neighbors an inspiring Memorial view?

Is ACPS abandoning rented digs to save on rent or relocating to make life easier for ACPS staff because BRAC threatens to make their (and with this proposal our) commute difficult?

The neighborhood would likely lose its outdoor pool and the Durant Center, which had an extensive buildout and renovation less than a decade ago, would be in limbo. In fact, with $14+ million recently sunk into the Charles Houston Center, why build Durant again, especially when the West End is pleading for recreational resources?

Here are just a few questions the Growler suggests Council ask regarding the Jefferson-Houston project.

A Sudden Priority?

In 2007 ACPS issued a white paper developed by ACPS in collaboration with the community outlining the long-term options for Jefferson-Houston. The school has maintenance issues but was not at the top of the list for reconstruction. (In fact, Jefferson-Houston opened in 1971 and is the second newest school in a system that includes many school buildings between 70 and 100 years old.)

As late as FY 2009, all that was contemplated for Jefferson-Houston was a roof replacement and a new sprinkler system tentatively scheduled for FY 2013. In January 2010, with new superintendent Dr. Morton Sherman on board, the total redevelopment of Jefferson-Houston suddenly became a priority, emerging as a budget item in ACPS’s FY 2011 capital budget submission. The FY2011 budget goes into effect July 1, 2010.

Question 1: Why is Jefferson-Houston, which serves half the number of students it did in the early 1970s, now a priority to be rebuilt?

In its heyday, there were between 600 and 700 students at Jefferson-Houston. That number has sunk to the low 200s (excluding special education students) in the last few years. Even with the expansion of the school to encompass grades K-8, there’s plenty of capacity already there.

ACPS admits as much on p. 9 of the capital budget Executive Summary, stating “Cora Kelly and Jefferson-Houston have substantial capacity, but they are not available to absorb addi­tional students as they are in NCLB school choice. They must meet the NCLB requirements for two years to be removed from school choice, so these sites are not available to solve capacity issues at least through the end of FY 2011.”

Questions 2 & 3: Is the enrollment crisis being driven by the City’s social policies and its 2007 immigration resolution rather than a newfound middle class enthusiasm for Alexandria public schools? What if Jefferson-Houston never meets NCLB requirements? In fact, is the idea to move the administrative offices to the site a political strategy for ensuring that this failing school never closes?


ACPS proposes building two new schools in addition to the Jefferson-Houston reconstruction. The other schools would be in the West End (probably at the site of the current Patrick Henry school) and on the eastern side of Alexandria at or on top of Cora Kelly School.

But of the three proposed new schools, Jefferson-Houston is the only one of the three expected to pay for itself. Although ACPS would retain long term ownership of the land private developers are being encouraged to participate to the tune of as much as 2.5 FAR density.

What is ACPS’s real objective? The choice of Jefferson-Houston, Cora Kelly and Patrick Henry should give readers a clue. Is it possible ACPS is fortifying rather than breaking up and restructuring troubled, predominantly low-income schools in order to maintain the segregation that has protected favored schools such as George Mason and Douglas McArthur?

Question 4: Why must this community use private developers to bootstrap its own school building when other neighborhoods are not required to do so?

Question 5: ACPS states that the combined cost of maintaining Jefferson-Houston and Cora Kelly would be $11 million. By contrast, the cost of rebuilding both as proposed (one a private-public partnership, the other via taxes) is over $40 million. Is reconstruction and hyperdevelopment really such an obvious choice?

A Real Savings … or Not?

According to ACPS's FY 2011 capital budget submission, it will cost $20 to $21.5 million per newly constructed school, Cora Kelly and Patrick Henry included. But page 3 of the same document states, "The school portion of this building [Jefferson-Houston] would cost approximately $21.5 million in FY 2013-2014." ACPS's budget for its share of the public-private partnership doesn't appear to be any different than the cost for building a new school without the partnership.

Question 6:
With no discernable difference in the price tag, why discriminate?

Potomac Yard

With land set aside for a new public school at Potomac Yard, why is Jefferson-Houston the focus of an expensive, on-site reconstruction? Prominent residents have proposed closing the school altogether and assigning pupils to a fresh location untainted by past failures.

Question 7:
Is the current plan to keep disadvantaged children isolated, away from Potomac Yard? Is there a plan afoot to peel off the children at Potomac Greens, in the Del Ray “wedge” and at Potomac Yard from Jefferson-Houston (where the first two are now assigned) and put them in a new Potomac Yard school in order to further segregate Jefferson-Houston?

Metro Madness

ACPS will, of course, argue that land located nearest Metro is the most valuable for redevelopment. But in Alexandria the Metro imperative is inconsistent at best.

Question 8: If proximity to Metro is the most important factor in any redevelopment scenario, why hasn’t the City arm-wrestled ARHA into redeveloping Adkins immediately instead of twenty years hence? Why is Hopkins-Tancil – a mile from Metro in the heart of Old Town – being touted privately by politicians as the next ARHA redevelopment project when Samuel Madden is mouldering only a few blocks from the Braddock Station? And let's not forget the City's projections (in the North Potomac Yard plan) that there would be only 900 additional riders at Braddock Road Station over the next 20 years.

Just call us skeptical about the Metro argument. If the City thought it compelling, it would be more consistent in its approach to redevelopment.

The Enrollment “Crisis”

ACPS has recently declared that school system capacity must be expanded immediately to handle a flood of new students over the next few years. That’s in stark contrast to a 2006 study which anticipated enrollments remaining flat over time although there was uncertainty about the impact of future development at Potomac Yard.

According to ACPS's capital budget document for FY 2011, “Students who are English language learners (ELL) increased from FY 2008 to FY 2010 by 189 students, an increase of 7.9%. ELL student enrollment is anticipated to increase approxi­mately 15% in FY 2010. The number of students eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches increased to 54% in FY 2010 [from 49% in FY 2007] and is projected to increase to 55% in FY 2011” (Executive Summary of ASCP Proposed FY 2011 Budget, p. I-24). Currently some 81% of Jefferson-Houston pupils are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Crying Wolf?

Remarkably, the ACPS capital budget document admits that the specter of unending enrollment increases might not happen. In discussing a new school which may be built adjacent to Patrick Henry Elementary, the capital budget request states “If the enrollment growth does not materialize, the building will replace the cur­rent Patrick Henry facility” (p. 2).

Is Oyster School Relevant?

School officials have alluded to the successful Oyster School redevelopment project in Northwest Washington, D.C. when discussing the proposed public-private redevelopment of Jefferson Houston.

But that project involved a grassroots campaign by neighbors who wanted to find alternatives to asking the strapped D.C. school system for money to rebuild an aging school. Make no mistake, the Jefferson-Houston proposal is (like most things in this neighborhood) a top-down initiative.

And speaking of community involvement …

In contrast to ACPS’s 2007 study of Jefferson-Houston facility options, at present outreach to the community about the new proposal has essentially been non-existent. There were no public meetings and the West Old Town Citizens Association had to formally invite ACPS representatives to its April 2010 meeting to find out more about the proposal; the initiative did not come from ACPS.

The Growler has also learned that the Jefferson-Houston PTA was only briefed about the proposal last night, after having had no discussion of the issue since last fall. That lends credence to some of the questions being raised in this neighborhood about whether School Board District A member Helen Morris – who lives directly across the street from the school – is representing the community and soliciting input or using the post as a resume builder.

The Jefferson Village Tease

Coy references have been made to possibly including Jefferson Village in the redevelopment of Jefferson-Houston. But ARHA has never talked about placing Jefferson Village at the top of its redevelopment list. And how many public housing units would be off-sited? Some, a few … or none? The danger is that our neighborhood is being tantalized by the prospect of public housing redevelopment and off-siting when in fact what we might gain is absolutely nothing. Let Bland be our warning cry.

Question 9: Is ARHA committed or not, and if so what is the plan to off-site 50% or more of the units? That number needs to be on the table from day one. Otherwise, it’s just a ruse.

Foundation or Fly Trap?

There is talk about structuring this deal so that it is managed through a private community-based foundation capable of issuing bonds at lower cost than the City could.

But who would be on this foundation? Typically it would be City staff and elected officials. However, there is talk about selecting community “representatives” for the board. Political wanna-bes or the elders of yore?

If you know the disgraceful story of Charles Houston Center’s “advisory board” be afraid – be very afraid. We will see narrowly considered political appointments and long-time non-resident emigrants hauled back to once again dictate how the school for the neighborhood they abandoned or never lived in should be managed.