Arlington County Board rejects plan to build elementary school at TJ Park

By Patricia Sullivan at The Washington Post January 28, 2015
The Arlington County Board has blocked — for now — a proposal to build an elementary school on county land at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center, telling school leaders they had neither considered enough alternatives nor explained to the public their overall plan for how to cope with booming enrollment.

The board voted 4 to 1 late Tuesday to reject the School Board’s proposal, which had stirred up opposition from residents of the Arlington Heights neighborhood who live near the 17-acre school, recreation center and park. Board members left the door open for reconsideration if the school district does an analysis of its options, including non-construction strategies.

“I need, as a county board member, to have a long view,” said board chairman Mary Hynes (D). “What the community is hungry for is to understand what the whole answer is, even if we can’t do it all in 10 years.”

School district leaders wanted to build a 725-seat school on a parking lot just west of Thomas Jefferson’s entrance. If started next month, the school could open in fall 2018, they said.

The need for a new school is “dire,” assistant superintendent John Chadwick told the board. Some 1,200 additional students showed up for school in Arlington in September, 300 more than expected; the 5.2 percent enrollment increase was the biggest jump in Arlington history. If a new school isn’t built, Chadwick said, 894 new seats will be needed by 2018, and — by 2024 — 1,384 new seats will be needed in South Arlington alone.

But the school district’s argument was undercut by its unwillingness to say what the future holds for nearby Patrick Henry Elementary School, located less than a mile away on the same block as the Arlington Career Center, where a new high school is planned. Schools officials also said they had not yet determined whether a school at Thomas Jefferson, widely known as TJ, would be a neighborhood school or a “choice” school. They told the board they had not asked the Virginia Department of Transportation whether better access could be granted to Arlington Boulevard to the north of Thomas Jefferson.

A community group that spent five months studying the options could only agree that a school could be built next to the middle school, not that it should be built there. The group’s report expressed frustration that members were not able to get all the answers they sought from the school district.

The sole vote in support of the proposal Tuesday night came from board member Libby Garvey (D), who argued that the schools had spent years identifying and examining alternatives before settling on the Thomas Jefferson site. She said she wanted to avoid increased use of temporary structures that the school system calls “relocatables,” which she believes could end up usurping parks, playgrounds and other recreational spaces.

“We’re going to turn Arlington schools into trailer parks,” Garvey said.

The issue came before the County Board because it involved land owned by the county, not the school system. Board members warned that as Arlington gets more crowded, it is likely that more public complexes will have to serve multiple functions.

Board member Jay Fisette (D) said that last year’s uproar over a now-canceled streetcar project offered an important lesson about the pitfalls of taking action without community support. He urged the school leaders to “build toward a consensus.”

The board’s multipart motion said it would reconsider the School Board’s request if officials show that they have analyzed alternative sites and provide a “close to final” estimate of requested funding.

The board also said it was committed to work with the school system to find at least 725 new elementary-school seats in south Arlington by September 2018, using a combination of interim and permanent facilities, including county-owned buildings and private commercial space.

Hynes said the board’s decision is aimed at finding a permanent solution, even if the short-term situation leaves everyone cramped.

“It’s like when you have the fifth baby and you only have three bedrooms,” she said. “You have to be a little more crowded for a while.”

Patrick Murphy, the schools superintendent, said the system would “go back to the drawing board — we’ll need to refine and sharpen our pencils, and we’ll do that.”

Opponents of building on the Thomas Jefferson site were ecstatic.

“Looking forward, we’re going to continue to work to make sure that this is a choice we don’t have to make,” said Jim Presswood, a leader of Friends of TJ Park, which also opposes construction on the parking lot site, which it wants to convert to additional parkland. “There are lots of options without having to take over TJ Park.”