Thursday, October 28, 2010

A $35 Million Gamble?

The Growler has been giving some additional thought to Monday's community meeting about a new Jefferson-Houston School. And there's lots to continue to question.

Readers may recall the 2007 ACPS white paper on what to do with the Jefferson-Houston facility. This official document discussed different supplemental uses (such as a City-wide pre-kindergarten program) and weighed new construction against remodeling. The cost estimates associated with these options ranged from $9 million to $21 million.

Now we are being told that the remodeling option is just about as expensive as new construction, and projected costs for either choice have skyrocketed to the mid-$30 million range.

There's just one factor that can account for this: ACPS's drive to turn Jefferson-Houston into a combo elementary-middle school.

And guess what readers: apparently no other school district is bent on doing something like this. Note carefully architect Lee Quill's quote in yesterday's article: "In Virginia, there are no pre-K-8 models for ACPS to look at, although I am certain that there are schools of this type somewhere in the country.”

Whoa! Is this an anomaly or is Alexandria's school system shooting some Vegas craps?

More and more it appears that the School Board wants the Mayor and Council to gamble with taxpayers' money on a gigantic scale.

"Commit to $35 million immediately in the joint City-ACPS capital budget," school leaders seem to be saying, "because there's an enrollment crisis in Alexandria." Of course, a new Jefferson-Houston won't help alleviate enrollment pressures across the City as long as academic performance lags. Only when it makes AYP two years in a row will neighborhood parents be pushed out of George Mason and other successful schools. But hey, we'll make AYP at Jefferson-Houston. Someday. Maybe.

"We want this new model of a school that merges elementary grades with middle school," they cry. No one else in the state apparently has pre-K through 8, but the City should go ahead and make the cash commitment. It's incredibly hip for ACPS to be perceived as a leader of some sort, even if schools like Jefferson-Houston are near the bottom of the Commonwealth of Virginia's ratings. As long as Arne Duncan is listening, we're cool.

"Redistricting is on the table; we just don't know what it will look like," said School Superintendent Morton Sherman on Monday night. Of course we don't have any plans we can show anyone even though we've done the demographic projections for Alexandria's school for the next decade. Just trust us. Give us the school now and we'll make boundary adjustments happen ... later.

"We did our share," ACPS seems to be saying, "so now do your part. We authorized a new curriculum for Jefferson-Houston, so we deserve a new building." Well, yes, IB-PYP is not yet fully implemented at Jefferson-Houston. It hasn't been proven to be a sure-fire means of turning around around a troubled urban school (which JH essentially is). But it's something Mort knows from Jersey, and dang it, we've got to put some bricks and mortar down fast and anchor the school "for the next 40 years" so these pesky neighbors will stop demanding a Potomac Yard school.

And so it goes.

Since the pressure to quickly renovate or rebuild Jefferson-Houston seems to have now dwindled, the Growler asks why the City Council can't wait and see if Morton Sherman and the School Board can deliver on their promises to turn Jefferson-Houston around academically and make pre-K through 8 work.

It's a $35 million gamble and the answer depends on whether the Mayor and Council like the odds.