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ArlingtonEducationCareer Center design plan still facing headwinds

Career Center design plan still facing headwinds

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As it gets down to crunch time for approving a design plan for the Arlington Career Center parcel, community criticism and School Board concerns are being raised over the overall cost, the amenities provided and whether focusing so much money on one project will crowd out needed capital spending elsewhere.

School Board members on April 7 reviewed the current staff proposal for the project, which pegs a major new facility on the Career Center campus at between $158.3 million and $174.6 million. Those are increases from the maximum project costs initially ratified by School Board members last autumn.

The staff 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. But with a vote on the concept design slated for April 28, concerns seem to be growing.

“I need a better understanding of what the future vision is,” School Board member Reid Goldstein said in a comment that minutes later was echoed by his colleague Mary Kadera.


That future vision for the site – including whether the existing Career Center building and nearby Montessori School of Arlington will be renovated or razed – is likely to come in early May, when Superintendent Francisco Durán details his latest capital-spending plan. However, some board members seemed to fear the cart was being put before the horse, as they were being asked to OK the new building’s concept design without a vetting of how it fits into the bigger capital-improvement picture.

Also of concern to some: Plans for the Career Center will push the school system perilously close to its maximum debt ceiling as imposed by the County Board, leaving little for other projects over the coming four years.

Kadera said that was akin to a family maxing out all its credit cards at once, although she later walked that back as a “bad” analogy. But she maintained that it was necessary to understand the opportunity costs to the school system of going with a pricey Career Center campus.

The Career Center site sits just north of Columbia Pike along South Walter Reed Drive, abutted by residential communities on two sides. Residents and leaders of close-by neighborhoods have been watching the project’s evolution, and at the April 7 meeting brought up concerns.

Christine Brittle of the Penrose community, who has been active in the planning process, said those in her neighborhood remain concerned about the lack of a fully fleshed out aspiration for the site, as well as having concerns that putting all the school system’s capital-spending eggs in the Career Center basket could leave nearby schools languishing in line for needed renovations.

“The community strongly believes we need a long-term plan before moving ahead,” she said. “Prior delays [in the project] are not a justification for inadequate planning.”

John Snyder, a veteran civic activist in the Douglas Park neighborhood on the south side of Columbia Pike, was angered that a plan for an auditorium on the site disappeared from the planning process last fall without notification to the public.

“This is a big problem for equity and transparency,” he said.

The plan does call for a gym, black-box theater and facilities for art and music for students both of the Career Center and Arlington Tech programs. But several School Board members pressed staff to justify them.

“Tell me about how those are critical,” board member Cristina Diaz-Torres probed.

Staff member Bridget Loft responded that Arlington Tech students are required to take phys-ed and elective courses, and not currently having a gym and art/music facilities was hurting their education experience.
Kadera responded that “there are trade-offs” when students enroll in specialty programs.

“We cannot and should not get into the habit of creating option programs that guarantee amenities identical to neighborhood schools,” she said, pressing staff to clearly enunciate which features are required under state requirements and those that are nice-to-haves rather than must-haves.

“If you enroll in an option program, it’s with the understanding that you are getting different, but hopefully equally compelling, amenities,” she said.

School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen seemed disinclined to go back and revisit the past, saying she and fellow board members last August had given the OK to cost parameters for the project.

“A budget was established and a timeline was established,” Kanninen said, acknowledging that while board members had the authority to revisit both matters, reopening previously approved big-picture planning could lead to “chaotic governance” if it occurred too frequently.

Kanninen’s comments drew a retort from Goldstein, who said the budget that had been approved by the board last October was $153 million for the smaller option and $171 million for the larger one.

“We don’t have that today,” Goldstein said, as both options presented by staff were are more expensive.

Once a concept design is approved by School Board members, the effort moves into the schematic-design phase.

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