Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Flunking Full Disclosure

On Monday, October 4 the Alexandria City Public School system (ACPS) will host another public meeting on the proposed redevelopment of Jefferson-Houston School. The meeting will be held in the multi-purpose room at JH from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Tours of the school will be offered from 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. before the meeting.

The Growler was on vacation out West in early September and so missed the initial September 13 community meeting. However, from all accounts, it is clear that School Board and Superintendent Dr. Morton Sherman were administered an atomic wedgie by the community and in front of City Council to boot.

But at the last meeting did school district leaders provide all the information required to convince the community that a new school is even necessary?

And will the next meeting simply be the next step in manipulating the neighborhood the same way that City leaders did with the Braddock Metro Neighborhood Plan (BMNP)?

Readers will remember that the Braddock plan involved public meetings that were nothing more than cynical squeeze plays to give the appearance that residents arrived independently at outcomes that were actually decided months or years earlier in the backrooms of power.

From information gleaned by the Growler after returning to town and from information provided by those in attendance on September 13 (including copious written notes), it appears that important information was still not forthcoming and it is likely we may still be on an equally slippery slope at Monday's meeting.

Here's just a few of the questions school leaders need to answer to satisfy the Growler and probably many others as well.

1. What is ACPS's (and the City's) relationship with architect Lee Quill and what business relationships does he have with advocates of a new school?

One of the key features of the Braddock Road plan was the use of volunteers recruited by City officials as shills to give the semblance of community consensus. Readers may perhaps remember historic preservation consultant and BMNP supporter Mary Means, who publicly stated she was "a neighbor" and was loaning her voice at no cost to Planning & Zoning. (In fact, she lived south of King Street, outside the Parker-Gray district.) After it was all over, she scored a vice presidency with the City's paid BMNP consultant David Dixon's firm, Goody Clancy. And let's not forget affordable housing advocate Herb Cooper-Levy, who argued for high density while quietly scoring loans for property acquisitions from a City program funded by developer contributions.

So how and why did Mr. Quill become involved in this process? Is he the Jefferson-Houston shill?

Here's a photograph that may help explain: it's his firm's sign on the front lawn of the president of the Upper King Street Neighborhood Association, Trey Hanbury. Mr. Hanbury is known as a long-time advocate for a new Jefferson-Houston building.

There's more however. Until two years ago, Mr. Quill and his wife (another architect, who serves on the Old & Historic Board of Architectural Review) owned a home on E. Spring Street in the south Del Ray "wedge" that is districted for Jefferson-Houston. However, the Alexandria Gazette noted in 2004 that the Quill children attended Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, and that Mr. Quill was strongly opposed to former Superintendent Rebecca Perry's decision to move charismatic principal Lucretia Jackson to Maury School in Rosemont.

Mr. Quill lived in the Jefferson-Houston district for 13 years and never to the Growler's knowledge advocated publicly for a new building. Would he have enrolled his children if the structure was new? And why didn't ACPS let its own facilities staff lead the discussion rather than Mr. Quill, since they would have the most detailed knowledge of the facility? Were they muzzled?

2. Why is ACPS saying today that Jefferson-Houston must be replaced when community meetings in 2007 and a subsequent ACPS white paper included options for remodeling?

Surprisingly, at the School Board's September 23 public hearing members seemed to believe that with the September 13 meeting behind them they had made the case that the school needed to be replaced and were ready to move on to creating the picture of the ideal new school. (The discussion of Jefferson-Houston begins at 3:18.)

Board member Arthur Peabody stated "We have apologized enough," and when he asked chairman Yvonne Folkerts what was on the agenda for October 4, she replied that it would be meeting to determine what a new school would look like.

However, the principal question about why a new school is needed was not answered at the public meeting last month, according to those attendees with whom the Growler has spoken. ACPS staff simply repeated again that if necessary upgrades will cost $17 million, and at that price tag a new facility costing $30 million is an easy choice.

That might be true if the asset was nearing the end of its useful life. But as the Growler has noted before, Alexandria has a number of schools that are 60, 70, 80 and 100 years old which are still in use. Sometimes in a time of great financial constraint it simply a matter of necessity to retain and refurbish a capital asset rather than spending more on a replacement.

Is Jefferson-Houston at the end of its useful life? The EMG facility study of January 2009, which was posted to the ACPS Web site after the September 13 meeting, states on page 3 of its facilities condition assessment that "Generally, the property seemes to have been constructed within industry standards in force at the time of construction. The property appears to have been well maintained in recent years and is in good overall condition." (Emphasis added.)

Leaf through pages 20 through 48 of the study and according to EMG's categorization terminology outlined on page 6 of the report, you will find that the vast majority of the building components are described in good condition, with only a few listed as "fair" or "poor."

How does any of this gibe with statements from ACPS board member Helen Morris to community residents over the summer that the school is on the verge of tumbling down?

And what about the 2007 white paper? Three of the five options which the School Board voted to explore further involved remodeling, while two involved new construction. If replacement is such an obvious imperative, did ACPS have an incompent facilities staff guiding the Board in 2007?

Furthermore, how can ACPS reconcile the numbers in the 2007 white paper with the $30 million figure Dr. Sherman is now stating the new school will cost? Bring out the number crunchers and the Excel spreadsheets and give us the hard numbers. In detail. We can take it.

And speaking of $30 million ...

3. How much of this figure is the cost to house the relocated ACPS headquarters rather than to build a new elementary school?

The Growler understands that the headquarters issue was barely discussed at the September meeting. It lends credence to the notion that ACPS would like us to ignore the 500-pound gorilla in the room. That's something which the City also attempted in the BMNP process. In April 2006 — hours before what was billed as the final community meeting on the plan — the City posted a draft of the plan omitting the chapter on public housing. When participants arrived they found they were expected to submit meekly to one final charrette exploring what to do with streetscaping.

Fortunately the disruption from disaffected residents was so great that the BMNP meeting was abandoned before it even started. But there are some disturbing parallels with the Jefferson-Houston redevelopment discussions, if the agenda for Monday is to start drawing pictures of the ideal school before the explanations and numbers are convincingly made that a new facility is even needed.

At tomorrow's meeting ACPS may argue that relocating the school system headquarters to Jefferson-Houston will turn it around. (Funny how ACPS staff denies the school is failing but talk constantly of "turn-arounds.") If that argument surfaces, ACPS had better be prepared to show empirical evidence that siting a public school system headquarters at an elementary school has actually succeeded in achieving measurable change.

4. The Growler anticipates that those in favor of a new school may change tactics and declare that the only way to turn around the troubled elementary school is to tear it down because the the open space classroom layout (all the rage in the 1970s) is responsible for Jefferson-Houston's woes.

This might be compelling, if it were true. However, the Growler would point to historic Standards of Learning (SOL) statistics from the Virginia Department of Education. Documents for 1998-2002 and for 2003-2005 (which the Cranky One has published before) show that pupil performance at Jefferson-Houston were good in the years before the redistricting and often exceeded schools like Lyles-Crouch, then at its nadir.

If the facility layout is to blame for the school's poor test scores in recent years, how is it that Jefferson-Houston pupils performed well in the past with the same open-space configuration?

It's also worth mentioning that Mr. Quill talked on September 13 about the need for science labs at Jefferson-Houston. However, the Growler was fascinated to hear board member Mimi Carter (on the September 23 School Board hearing video at 2:03:03) state "we have lost our science labs in elementary school" and describe how science is now taught from rolling carts at the primary level. If Jefferson-Houston lacked labs that other schools had, the Growler would be the first to demand equitable treatment. But that isn't the case.

So ACPS, here's your homework. And don't forget most of your answers are predicated on the numbers of Jefferson-Houston students you eventually expect to serve.