City Council last fall formed the Joint Long-Range Educational Facilities Plan Work Group to help tackle the pressing problems of the public school system’s long-term enrollment growth and other issues.
“The reason we created this group was that for years we’ve had this discord on what the numbers are — the schools had a projection for an enrollment estimate and the city had another view of it,” said City Councilman Justin Wilson, who is a group member. “The result has been inaction. We’ve kind of sat and we’ve had both sides pointing fingers. …There’s a desire to bring the two organizations together, agree on numbers and find a solution.”
In October 2012 there were more than 13,000 students in Alexandria City Public Schools, up from the more than 10,000 in 2007.
Current projections suggest that by the time school opens in six years, ACPS will see anywhere from 15,000 students to a high-end estimate of 17,500.
“We can safely conclude we have a problem,” Wilson said, referring to how to best educate and find space for the burgeoning population.
Over the last several months, capital-planning staff, a demographer, the facilities group, the Department of Community and Human Services and others have been meeting to try and agree on long-term enrollment projections.
The work group has 19 members representing the community, ACPS School Board, City Council, Campagna Center and the PTA Council, supported by ACPS and city staff.
Wilson said the group has been crunching all kinds of data such as how many kids attend ACPS who live in condos, townhomes and from certain neighborhoods.
“It’s changing,” he said. “Ten years ago a lot of families wouldn’t have thought of raising kids in a 700-square-foot condo, but now that’s not an interim use. They are saying this is where we’re going to raise our kids. It’s changing the way we [as a city] look at student enrollment.”
Alexandria has seen a surge of children entering the public school system at the elementary school level.
“The biggest question we’re grappling with is whether this is an anomaly — a bubble — that will work its way through or will this continue,” he said.
Wilson added that with a weak economy, parents may be holding off sending their children to the many, but expensive private schools in the city.
“The question is if the economy goes back to roaring will parents send their kids back to private schools,” he said.
It’s a quandary for the city as it struggles to provide capacity for the current, straining school system “but we don’t want to build five schools and have empty schools when or if the bulge goes away,” he said.
Guidance for the city’s upcoming budget asks the city manager to address school capacity — a move that Wilson says should treat the issue as a top priority.
Wilson also suggested that the school system look at creative ways to address the capacity issue without new construction in certain cases such as scheduling morning and afternoon shifts of students attending T.C. Williams.
He disagrees with some community members who say the capacity issues are strictly a development-driven problem.
“It’s easy to come to that conclusion but if you look at the schools where we’re having the capacity issues it’s Maury, Macarthur and Mount Vernon,” he said, referring to three elementary schools in the city's East End. “Those are single-family neighborhoods that haven’t seen development in 25 years. This is being driven by other factors.”
Wilson agrees that development is going to drive the issue in the future. Major redevelopment plans at "Beauregard, Landmark and Potomac Yard will drive the issue, but we have to be careful saying it’s all because of development,” he said.
Whatever outcome the group provides, “It’s going to be a whole series of tradeoffs,” Wilson said.