One of democracy’s inconveniences is that pesky need to educate all of the community’s children.
Like jurisdictions everywhere feeling new demographic pressures, Arlington is wrestling with school crowding, proving once again you can’t please all the people very much of the time.
On Nov. 6, voters will consider a $42.6 million school bond containing resources to meet the challenge. With kids already packed into 103 relocatable classrooms (the street term is trailers), projections show a 20 percent enrollment hike in the next five years. That requires creating about 1,875 new seats.
Working within property already assigned to the schools, planners came up with a multi-component strategy that includes construction of a pair of new elementary schools, one in south Arlington near Kenmore Middle School and another on the grounds of my alma mater, Williamsburg Middle School.
That ambitious move would represent the opening shot in what will be a knock-down fight over rejiggering school boundaries. We know that brings out passions about traditions, classmate friendships, economic status and real estate investments.
But the immediate problem is that some residents think county and school authorities are forging ahead on the two new schools with too little consideration of impact on traffic, safety, open space and athletic fields.
“Our neighborhood has more of a suburban feel, unlike other areas of Arlington, and we want to maintain that as it is,” says Lynn Pollock, an organizer with the Rock Spring Civic Association working group who lives directly opposite Williamsburg. “In the past, there have been nasty traffic situations in the morning, with cars going down the wrong side of the road to avoid the lines to drop off kids,” she says, acknowledging that a new resources officer has eased the risks.
This spring, the group collected 120 names on a petition asking the county and school boards to consult the impacted neighbors before selecting a site. “We feel a new school does belong in North Arlington,” Pollock said, but that other sites, such as the Reed School (co-located with Westover Library), or the Madison Center (my former elementary school) would be more palatable to nearby residents.
But they bumped into a school board hurrying to get a plan in place and a county board worried about land-use feasibility for the long term. Both Madison and Reed—along with other former elementary schools across Arlington such as the Lee Center and Maury—are valued for their current roles serving seniors and the arts communities. Co-locations can create tensions between the two authorities.
Pollock is aware that Williamsburg is attractive in that future planners would have flexibility to move students between the elementary and middle school buildings as needed.
The Rock Spring group plans to attend public hearings and work with planning committees. “We want to make sure no new school is built without meeting all environmental concerns,” Pollock says, mentioning LEED standards, caring for the Chesapeake Bay watershed and conducting a traffic study, now underway. “We want the authorities to be good stewards.”
The bond issue contains funds for needed building improvements beyond the two new schools. “This is not a good opportunity to tell people not to vote for it since the schools still have to operate,” she says. “We’re not trying to be radical, but to work with the site to make it the best we can.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org