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ArlingtonAfter sparring, Career Center concept design approved

After sparring, Career Center concept design approved

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Arlington School Board members on April 28 voted to move forward with the most expensive capital project in the school system’s history, but only after sparks flew between the board’s newest member and its most senior one.

Board members voted 3-1 to approve the concept design for construction on the Arlington Career Center site, a project that has been stalled for years and, owing in part to that delay, has ballooned to a projected cost of $174.6 million.

The vote allows the project to move forward to the schematic-design process, with further refinements down the road.

“We are still very much in the determining-what-this-is-going-to-look-like phase,” said School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres, who said that after multiple delays, it would be a breach of trust not to keep the effort on track.


The vote “keeps the work moving [and] demonstrates our commitment,” she said.

But opposition came from board member Mary Kadera, who pressed for a delay of several months to determine the financial impacts of the project on the school system’s overall capital-spending capabilities.

“We’re simply being irresponsible” moving forward before “we will have a clearer sense of the opportunity cost,” Kadera said.

“Dollars we spend here are dollars we won’t have [available] to spend on other capital projects,” Kadera said. “I am not arguing with the need for a new building . . . [but] I want us to do this right.”

Kadera, who was elected to the School Board last year, found herself rebuked by board chairman Barbara Kanninen, who has the longest tenure (eight years). Kanninen seemed to be accusing Kadera of untoward behavior in raising objections and asking for a delay.

“When you join the School Board, you’re not a candidate any more, you’re not a commentator on social media. We need to be so aware of that,” Kanninen said, suggesting that the thought of delaying project was “heartbreaking.”

(Kadera later shot back that she was unaware that School Board members were required to vote in lock-step on every issue. Kanninen then retorted that was not what she had meant, but was only discussing votes on specific school projects long in the pipeline.)

Like Diaz-Torres, Kanninen said the process would continue to play out throughout the next part of the design phase, but that the April 28 vote represented “an extremely important step to keep us on schedule to support our students.”

“It is absolutely affordable,” Kanninen said. “There is still debt capacity [available] for other projects and there is still $34 million in capital reserves.”

School Board member David Priddy voted with Kanninen and Diaz-Torres to approve the concept design; board member Reid Goldstein, who earlier had questioned the creeping costs of the proposal compared to last year’s board direction to staff, as well as the overall vision for existing facilities on the Career Center parcel, did not participate in the meeting.

The proposal maintains the current timeline: Beginning the project during the summer of 2023, having the major building complete by December 2025 and then wrapping up ancillary efforts by 2027.

The Career Center site sits just north of Columbia Pike along South Walter Reed Drive, abutted by residential communities on three sides and a commercial strip on the fourth. In addition to the Career Center building and large surface parking lot, it is home to Arlington Community High School, Montessori School of Arlington and the Columbia Pike branch library.

The future vision for the parcel – including whether the existing Career Center building and Montessori School will be renovated or razed – is likely to come shortly, when Superintendent Francisco Durán details his latest capital-spending plan.

The Career Center project’s budget that had been approved by the board last October was $153 million for a smaller option and $171 million for a larger one. At the April 28 meeting, Kanninen said it was remarkable that the project had only grown to $174.6 million in the intervening months, given the inflationary pressures now swirling.

Perhaps, but all figures are mere guesstimates until a design is fleshed out and the project is sent out for bids.

Voters will be asked to approve the majority of the funding through bond referendums, but that is likely to be a low hurdle for the school system to surmount. County voters have not turned down any local bond issues since 1979, and school bonds usually lead the pack in the percentage of the electorate in support.

There is a semi-formal policy position in place from the County Board that debt service will not exceed 10 percent of the overall county budget each year; the Career Center plan and other proposed capital projects will bring the school system perilously close (but not over) that figure.

Keeping the county and school system under that 10-percent threshold may be one reason County Board members in recent years have opted not to lower real-estate tax rates despite ballooning assessments; higher tax bills for property owners equate to a larger government operating budget, which equates to more bonding capacity.

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