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ArlingtonSpending plan leads to question: Will APS have enough cash?

Spending plan leads to question: Will APS have enough cash?

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The most expensive construction project in Arlington Public Schools’ history won’t limit the school system’s long-term ability to embark on other capital-spending efforts, the county’s superintendent said on June 9.

But a little more than a month after a divided School Board voted to approve the concept design for a planned $174.6 million Arlington Career Center building, concerns continue to be raised if there will be enough funds to address other needs.

“I’m concerned that our lack of financial data has already resulted in a significant misalignment between the county [government’s] estimate of our available bond capacity and our own accounting of that,” said School Board member Mary Kadera, who in April led a largely solitary (among her colleagues) effort to delay approval of the concept design until the costs of other facilities needs could be evaluated.

In the interim, other critics have pounced on county-government estimates that would provide the school system far less in bond dollars than school officials say they will have.

In an effort to sidetrack some of the criticism, Superintendent Francisco Durán said June 9 that he and other staff had met with County Manager Mark Schwartz and received assurance that the pipeline of cash would continue to flow.

Schwartz “was very clear with us that he was not concerned, Durán said. “He reassured us this was not a problem.”

The issue has been on the radar of the county government’s Joint Facilities Advisory Commission, which in a letter to School Board leaders asked why the proposed school system capital-improvement plan says the system will have $708 million available, while the county government’s own capital-improvement plan only allocates $466 million to school facilities.

The letter from committee chair Kathleen McSweeney and vice chair Stacy Snyder expressed “strong concerns” about the disparity, about a lack in detail in Durán’s capital-spending package proposed in May and about a lack of transparency from the school system.

The county government and the school system work together – sometimes with more esprit de corps than others – to coordinate their long-term capital spending so the cost of debt service does not rise above 10 percent of the total annual county/schools budget. Coming years are projected to see the debt service come perilously close, but not cross, that 10-percent threshold.

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. The decision to keep tax rates unchanged came even as homeowners were socked with higher assessments, and even though virtually every Northern Virginia locality absent Arlington lowered tax rates.

Kadera, who in April engaged in some, as diplomats would put, full and frank repartée with School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen over the Career Center project, was more subdued at the June 9 meeting. She did ask that school officials put some dollar amounts on a series of proposed renovation projects before the School Board considers the matter again on June 23.

(Kanninen, who has opted against seeking re-election in November, was not in attendance at the June 9 meeting, owing to a family situation, officials said.)

The Career Center project’s $174.6 million budget approved in April was up from $171 proposed the previous October, and was well above the $153 million school officials said would buy them a slightly downscaled facility. The long-term costs to taxpayers will only be known when the school system ultimately sells bonds; with interest rates on the rise, the eventual cost counting interest could easily surpass $200 million.

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. Arlington Community High School will move to Pentagon City and the branch library to parts unknown as the redevelopment unfolds.

More details are beginning to gel about the project, including plans to locate the new Career Center building on the South Walter Reed Drive side of the parcel and, possibly, moving the Montessori Public School of Arlington into the old building.

“There are a lot of questions that are still lingering that over the next weeks we’ll work out,” School Board member David Priddy said. “For the most part, we have the framework in place.”

If all goes as planned, construction of the new Career Center building will start in mid-2023 and be completed by late 2025.

Getting the project off the ground will require voter approval of a school bond, but that is unlikely to be a hurdle. County voters have not turned down any local bond proposals for nearly 45 years.

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