Arlington Needs More Schools. Are Tax Hikes Inevitable?
How will the county pay for new school construction if school bonds no longer enough?
Illustrations by Cathy Gendron
Last year, students at McKinley Elementary School often spent recess in a fenced-off traffic circle, drawing on the pavement with chalk or playing games on the small patch of grass and dirt surrounding the flagpole. With 14 relocatable classrooms (aka “trailers”) wedged onto the campus in the midst of a construction project that will soon add 240 more permanent seats to the school, there was little space left for kids to roam.
Valerie O’Such, whose daughter is now a second-grader at McKinley, acknowledges that the situation was less than ideal, but necessary. Arlington Public Schools (APS) enrollment increased 43 percent in the past decade, climbing from 18,450 students in the fall of 2006 to about 26,350 today. With McKinley’s built capacity increasing to 685 permanent seats, O’Such says she’s looking forward to seeing most, if not all, of the modular classrooms hauled off once the addition is completed in January. Six of them were removed before this school year began.
Still, she worries that many other Arlington schools—including the middle and high schools in her daughter’s future—will be relying heavily on portable classrooms in the years ahead. “I don’t see this issue going away,” says the Tara-Leeway Heights resident.
In letters to the Arlington School Board last spring, O’Such expressed her concern that APS’s latest 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), despite its promise of as many as 6,600 additional student seats countywide, may yet fall short of accommodating Arlington’s growing student population—particularly at the high school level.
After receiving several form-letter responses that she says “made it feel like they weren’t listening,” she spearheaded a petition that urged the board to “plan now so that today’s elementary and preschool students can have seats in high schools, not trailers.” The petition quickly garnered more than 1,000 supporters.
When the school board finalized the current CIP in June, the document had one noteworthy addition: another new high school with at least 1,000 more seats. But whether that bump will be adequate, and how the county will pay for any school construction expenditures that exceed the $510 million budgeted through 2026 is unclear.
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Forecasting student enrollment is no easy job. It’s an inexact science that mashes together quantifiable metrics, such as county birth rates and year-to-year changes in kindergarten enrollment, with factors such as new housing stock and turnover of existing homes.
Predicting space needs at neighborhood schools gets even trickier, says Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey, given that head counts fluctuate by grade. Schools can’t simply pull in kids from other districts to top off classes that aren’t maxed out. “You can’t get the perfect number of kids. They don’t come in neat packages” that fill up grade-specific classrooms, says Garvey, who previously served 15 years on the Arlington School Board.
Recess at McKinley Elementary during the 2015-2016 school year. Photo by Valerie O’Such.
Back in 2006, demographers predicted that APS enrollment would fall from 18,450 to around 17,000 by 2011. Instead, the student body swelled by nearly 3,000 kids as the county’s birth rate climbed and APS saw its attrition rate fall from an average of 2 to 3 percent annually to less than 1 percent.
In retrospect, some observers say, there were warning signs. During the housing boom, the county saw an influx of families with young children as older residents took advantage of the sellers’ market and sold their homes. Then, “with the housing market collapsing and mortgages drying up, more people were staying put in Arlington,” says John Snyder, who back then served as vice-chair of the APS Facilities Advisory Council and president of the Douglas Park Civic Association. “Everyone kept saying, ‘I have never seen so many strollers.’ ”
APS still had surplus space when the student surge began and did not break ground on the first construction project to increase school capacity until September 2013. With the opening of Discovery Elementary and an addition at Ashlawn Elementary, as well as increases in maximum class sizes and internal modifications in various other school buildings, the school system says it has added the equivalent of 4,750 permanent seats (not including those currently under construction at McKinley) since 2006. But its population has grown by roughly 8,000 students over the same time period.
Now, as school officials brace for what they believe will be at least another decade of growth, they are playing catch-up. APS expects its student population to reach about 32,000 by the 2025-2026 school year. After that, forecasters predict the rate of growth will taper off, mainly because the numbers of Arlington’s incoming kindergartners and newborns have begun to plateau.
Some critics contend, however, that school officials could once again be missing some important variables. “As long as housing prices rise faster than wages, forcing many families into multifamily buildings, and the county board keeps approving significant housing stock expansion, enrollment will rise indefinitely,” says Gary Steele, an Arlington father of three and a member of the Arlington County Civic Federation’s Schools Committee.
The Arlington County Board greenlighted 3,750 new rental apartment and condo units in 2015, and has approved thousands more in 2016. Meanwhile, Arlington continues to welcome new families (mostly buying or renting existing homes), drawn by the promise of shorter commutes and good schools.
The growth spurt isn’t all bad news, notes Arlington School Board member Reid Goldstein: “We are the beneficiaries of our own success. We’re not victims. We made good heads-up decisions and people want to move here. Our challenge is to manage growth appropriately.”
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Where does one draw the line between smart school planning and potential overbuilding? With this question comes a cautionary backstory: In the 1960s, APS enrollment topped 25,000 students as the massive Baby Boomer generation passed through its formative years, but by 1988 the number of students had dipped to below 15,000. At that point, the county had more schools than it needed, so it closed some of them.
Whereas Arlington had 38 elementary schools in 1955, it now has 23.
During the 2015-2016 school year, APS technically operated at full capacity, falling just 175 seats short of accommodating its total student population. But the distribution of students wasn’t even. Some schools were nearly bursting at the seams, while a few others had wiggle room.
Today, about 1 in 10 Arlington schoolchildren no longer fit inside the brick-and-mortar buildings where they learn. This mismatch has forced many schools to stretch space with relocatable classrooms, which do not count as official permanent “seats.”
School officials report that APS spent $16 million to purchase and lease 160 trailers over the last decade. The use of portable classrooms has allowed Arlington schools to maintain relatively small average classroom sizes—the smallest in the greater Washington, D.C., region—but it’s also put stress on common areas such as cafeterias, gyms and art rooms.
“Trailers have saved Arlington millions, but their overuse is coming at considerable cost,” says Michael Beer, a father of two APS students and co-chair of the Arlington County Civic Federation’s Schools Committee. One of the less obvious ones, he says, is environmental. “[The modular classrooms] take up a lot of green and recreation space. They add more impermeable surfaces for water runoff. Their energy efficiency cannot be great.”
Yet there may be plenty of trailers on the horizon. Even if APS carries out its plan to add as many as 6,600 more permanent seats by the 2025-2026 school year, the gap between students and seats could still widen, according to school projections.
“[The portable classrooms] aren’t temporary,” Beer predicts. “Some will be in place for 20 or 30 years.”
This time, if APS builds more space than it needs, its first move will be to retire trailers, not close schools. As Arlington School Board member Barbara Kanninen puts it: “We can’t overbuild since we’re way behind [on the construction of permanent seats].”
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Can’t APS simply accelerate and bolster its plans to add permanent school capacity? That’s easier said than done, according to Noah Simon, a past PTA president at Arlington Science Focus Elementary and Swanson Middle who served on the Arlington School Board from 2012 to 2014. “I don’t know how more construction would be possible from a financial perspective,” he says.
The trouble is that APS will be paying down debt it’s already incurred on school construction projects (plus interest) for the foreseeable future.
Since 2006, APS has spent $572 million on school construction, more than half of it (roughly $300 million) to rebuild Arlington’s three major high schools: Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield. Unfortunately, those projects ate up public funds without adding any new seats.
“The staff and boards and community advisers reached a consensus 10 to 15 years ago” on the plan to replace the high school buildings without increasing capacity, says Nauck resident Moira Forbes, a mother of two APS students who served on the school system’s Budget Advisory Committee between 2010 and 2016, as well as on the APS Facilities Study Committee in 2015. “This was a collective failure.
“Every time I see the growth projections I just want to curl up in the fetal position,” Forbes says.
Historically, Arlington has relied heavily on bond revenue to pay for school construction. And the fact that the county has maintained a AAA-bond rating (the highest credit rating a municipality can have) has kept borrowing costs to a minimum amid record-low interest rates. In November, Arlingtonians will vote on a referendum calling for $139 million in additional school bonds over the next two years. It is widely expected to pass.
But even with voter support, there are limits to how much money Arlington can raise in this way. To maintain Arlington’s top-notch credit rating, APS has always kept the total of the interest and principal repayments (known as debt service) paid in a given year below 10 percent of its yearly operating budget. It has tiptoed toward that cap for years.
It doesn’t help that Arlington’s surge in school-age kids has coincided with an uptick in commercial office vacancies, which are now hovering around 20 percent countywide (double the historic average). Every percentage point of empty office space cuts tax receipts by $3.4 million, says County Manager Mark Schwartz. Which leaves less money for schools and everything else.
So it’s helpful that APS’s current 10-year construction plan incorporates two subtle funding boosts from the county government.
First, the plan calls for piercing that 10 percent cap on debt service for school construction by 2021, with the county board’s blessing and cooperation. (To safeguard its top-tier status in the bond market, the county would keep debt service on non-school construction below 10 percent of its operating budget.)
Second, the county is handing over the Fenwick Center property (which sits adjacent to the Arlington Career Center and a library branch on Walter Reed Drive) to APS after years of non-school use.
This will allow for an expansion of Arlington Tech, a new countywide high school program focused on project- and work-based learning. Its pilot program kicked off this fall with 40 freshmen.
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Arlington County is known for putting a premium on education, and it consistently outspends the rest of the D.C. region on a per-pupil basis, according to a survey by the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE). Arlington spent $18,616 per student last year, compared with a per-student cost of $13,718 in neighboring Fairfax County.
APS could spend less in its efforts to cope with growth, but doing so would require measures that many area parents find unpalatable. For starters, it could redraw school district boundaries more often. While some Arlington schools are already over capacity by at least 20 percent (and more will soon hit that mark), others are projected to remain much less crowded.
But being redistricted—and the logistical and emotional disruption that comes with it—is anathema to many parents and students. “People view their schools like a family, so moving a school boundary is like a divorce. People get upset,” says County Board Chair Garvey.
Some homeowners also complain that boundary changes could affect their property values.
School architecture and amenities are another area where some county leaders believe spending could be reduced. Arlington spends at least twice the national average on its new schools, according to School Planning & Management’s annual construction report. Discovery Elementary’s elegant, light-filled building cost an estimated $43.8 million for 630 seats, whereas the regional spending average for new schools is $25 million for 700 seats. The new H-B Woodlawn building, designed by the prominent European architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group and slated to open in 2019 with 775 students, will cost an estimated $101 million.
“Some of the features that we have had in our most recently constructed schools were not absolutely necessary,” says county board member John Vihstadt. “Nice to have? Yes. Exciting? Yes. But were they really necessary to give our kids a state-of-the-art education in a modern facility? No.”
Still, paring down costs could prove difficult now that the bar has been raised. “[School officials] need to be consistent and not listen to some taxpayers more than other taxpayers just because their property taxes are higher,” says Megan Haydasz, a mother of two students at Patrick Henry Elementary.
Haydasz is now chairing a committee to gather community input as APS plans a new 725-seat, $59 million elementary school next to Thomas Jefferson Middle School near the intersection of Arlington Boulevard and South Glebe Road. (APS plans to shift students from Patrick Henry to the TJ site and relocate its Montessori program from Drew Model School to the Patrick Henry building in the fall of 2019.) Haydasz says she isn’t averse to trimming bells and whistles, but wants “any cost-cutting measures to be applied evenly across all construction projects, both now and in the future.”
“One school shouldn’t bear the brunt” of the cost savings, she asserts.
John Chadwick, APS assistant superintendent for facilities and operations, notes that there are reasons Arlington may spend more on school construction than other jurisdictions. “We have very high standards and community expectations for class size, special instructional uses, physical education and athletic facilities, and community amenities that are not matched in many other school districts,” he says.
Heeding Arlington County’s emphasis on sustainability, APS also invests heavily in energy-efficient building practices, which are pricier upfront but save money over time. While the initial building costs for Discovery were significant, the building draws so much power from its geothermal wells, solar arrays and solar water heater that APS may save about $100,000 per year on utility bills, Chadwick says.
Former APS finance chief Deirdra McLaughlin, who retired in July, agrees that some new school buildings could certainly be “more plain Jane,” but she says that a lot of Arlington’s premium pricing is unavoidable. Constrained by the county’s sky-high real estate market, its commitment to expanding parkland (rather than building schools on greenspace) and backlash from homeowners who don’t want increased traffic in their neighborhoods, APS has few site options. As such, it’s recently been inclined to establish and expand schools on the sites it already owns. But those sites tend to be topographically challenging, which increases building costs. Plus, many of them already harbor other schools.
The school board is currently considering replacing the Education Center—a building next to Washington-Lee High School that houses the school board’s offices and APS administrative staff—with a new “small” high school for up to 1,300 students. Critics say that such a move would essentially amount to an expansion of Washington-Lee that would pack 3,500 students onto one campus.
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There is yet another way that APS could maximize space and save money without incurring added construction costs. It could jack up class sizes, which currently average about 20 students per class, regardless of grade level. (By comparison, Fairfax County classrooms average 22 students per elementary class and 26 per high school class, according to the latest WABE survey.)
But in a county where academics are a point of pride and seven in 10 adults have a college degree, some fear that such measures would strip APS of one of its greatest strengths. “I feel like we’re really lucky in Arlington to have smaller class sizes than almost anyone around us,” says petition organizer O’Such. “That’s one of the reasons we stayed here after our child was born.”
Arlington’s state-of-the-art Discovery Elementary School (here and below)
Which brings us to the time-consuming tradition of community engagement known as The Arlington Way. When it works, this democratic process results in much-needed school and civic improvements, such as the long-overdue renovations and small addition that are currently underway at Abingdon Elementary. That project was greenlighted partly in response to advocacy efforts by school parents and other community members.
At the same time, Arlington’s town-hall tradition—which allows any and all community members to have their say—also has been known to pad new buildings with pricey features and drag out construction timetables. Since labor and material costs typically rise over time, delays can be expensive. Plus, architects and engineering consultants often participate in the dozens of stakeholder meetings that each major project requires, and paying for that billable time can cost APS upwards of $1,750 or more per meeting, Chadwick says.
School officials are pondering what they call “non-capital” options to mitigate the capacity crunch—such as getting more mileage out of existing school buildings with split student shifts, increasing online learning opportunities (which some academics see as the wave of the future) and building internships into the curriculum. “From 30,000 feet, our problems look less like an overall capacity problem and more like a scheduling bottleneck,” stated one recent task force in its report to Superintendent Patrick Murphy.
However, proposed measures like these are already stirring community opposition as APS embarks on a “visioning process” that will update how high-schoolers are educated.
County officials realize they may eventually need to explore new funding mechanisms for schools. A few years ago, APS commissioned a 300-page report by the real estate consulting firm Meany & Oliver, with recommendations for weathering brisk growth. The study, completed in 2011, urged Arlington leaders to augment school construction funding, catalogued 865 potential sites for new schools, and outlined an action plan to spur the creation of thousands of new seats. (Though the report was never made public, APS provided a copy to Arlington Magazine upon request.)
Among its recommendations, the report suggested that Arlington establish “a tax-favored foundation” and seek donations. It also recommended collecting fees from housing developers to help defray the costs of school construction. (While the Commonwealth of Virginia has always restricted the scope of such arrangements, known as “school proffers,” Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties managed to raise some $84 million between 2002 and 2010 using this approach, according to the report.)
All told, the Arlington County government could be facing some tough decisions in the near term—such as reducing spending on parks and affordable housing to free up education dollars. “There may need to be some hard choices and trade-offs in the future that we so far have managed to avoid,” Vihstadt says.
Arlington is not alone in its struggle to pay for school growth. A recent report from the National Council on School Facilities and three other groups finds that school districts nationwide spend $46 billion per year less than they should to maintain and expand infrastructure.
At the same time, Arlington does not qualify for the scant federal funding that’s earmarked for less affluent school districts. And it doesn’t get much assistance from the Commonwealth, partly because Virginia has proven to be less inclined than other states to kick in funding for school construction projects. Since 2006, Richmond has provided only $1.7 million for school construction in Arlington, notes Leslie Peterson, who now serves as APS finance director after several years as its budget director.
As APS runs out of space in its budget to shoulder additional debt service, Arlington County has little room of its own to spare. Debt service will consume at least 9.6 percent of the county’s total budget between 2021 and 2025, according to its current $3.3 billion 10-year construction plan, which includes APS expenditures.
That means Arlington eventually may need an alternative to school bonds to pay for additional school seats. “Basically there would be two choices, either together or separately. And that would be to either raise taxes or cut spending,” Vihstadt says. “Neither of those options is particularly attractive.”
School officials are optimistic that student enrollment will start to level off 10 years from now. But if—worst case—the rapid growth continues, APS could be short another 4,000 seats or more, according to its own projections. That’s the equivalent of at least three more schools, which would cost at least $300 million in total to build, not including the cost of new land or structured parking. In that event, “unless we’re prepared to make cuts elsewhere, additional taxes will be required,” says County Manager Mark Schwartz.
Would Arlington flinch if higher taxes were put in place? Noah Simon, the former school board member, doesn’t think so.
“If there were a need for a big tax increase because of the schools being in dire straits, it would be strongly considered,” he says. “I have yet to see a school need that has not been met.”
Numbers in this article have been rounded for clarity.
Emily Schwartz Greco lives in Arlington, where her children attend Claremont Immersion School. She spent more than two years as an advocate representing the Claremont neighborhood on school capacity issues before switching gears and authoring this article.