School Board members on Oct. 28 are likely to approve, in principle, construction of a $150-million-to-$170-million new Arlington Career Center, which could be open to students by the end of 2025 if all goes according to plan.
The proposal to construct a new building, rather than renovate and expand the current structure, is the recommendation of Superintendent Francisco Durán and staff. It is more costly than two of the renovate-and-expand options on the table, less costly than another of them.
The new building – which would accommodate 1,345 to 1,795 students – would rise on free space at the existing Career Center campus, allowing students to occupy the current facility until switching over to the new one. The current Career Center building would then be available for other uses, or (as has been the case with a number of school buildings over the years) razed to the ground.
The Oct. 28 vote is expected to designate the superintendent’s proposal as the School Board’s designated plan, although specifics, including the size of the building, will remain a work in progress for months to come.
“It is something that has to play out,” School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen said.
Although some of the funds needed for the construction already are in the school system’s coffers, Arlington voters likely would be asked to provide the bulk of the funding via a November 2022 bond referendum. Approval would set the stage for two years of construction to begin.
The plan to build a new facility is likely to permit the adjacent Montessori Public School of Arlington to remain open throughout construction. But having the hulking original Career Center building in place after the new school is completed is likely to irk residents of the Columbia Pike neighborhoods that surround the parcel, who long have argued against putting too many students on the parcel.
Durán and staff rolled out their proposal Oct. 14. During the presentation, School Board member Reid Goldstein pressed staff on cost issues.
“What’s the ‘not-to-exceed’ figure?” he asked. “I learned the hard way about ‘cost creep’ in construction projects.”
(Staff had no immediate answer to Goldstein’s query.)
The new school’s design likely will incorporate spaces for all 1,795 students, but the building could be constructed either to full capacity or for a smaller number (1,345) with the option to later expand it to full size.
That latter possibility concerned School Board member Monique O’Grady, who it would be “incredibly disruptive” to students and the community to build a school and come back several years later and build some more.
But the final decision may be out of School Board members’ hands, as it will depend on how much bond revenue the school system is allowed to seek from the public in upcoming referendums – a decision of the County Board and county manager. Their collective decision could turn on the economic impact of COVID over the long term.
New figures from county officials suggest a more robust rebound in county-government revenue in coming years, which might give school officials more funding to work with. It might come, however, at the expense of county homeowners, who have seen expotentially higher property assessments in recent years but have not seen their local leaders willing to reduce tax rates to ease the burden.
By the time a final decision on the size of the Career Center facility is taken next spring, O’Grady will be off the School Board dais, as she opted not to seek re-election this fall. Her likely successor, Mary Kadera, has voiced concerns during campaign season about the project’s size and scope, given the still-up-in-the-air situation with student enrollment in the COVID era.
Also an open question: What the impact will be of a possible inflationary era that seems to lurk on the near horizon.
The range of $150 million to $170 million put forward by Durán for the new school is in current dollars, although it takes into account estimated cost escalation over the next four years. But if inflation gets out of hand, the cost for the Career Center project – and other school-system capital projects – will become both harder to predict and harder to find the cash to pay for.