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‘Better Use For Right Now’ in Alexandria?
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‘Better Use For Right Now’ in Alexandria?

Schools to investigate old Patrick Henry building as “swing space.”

The public school division will consider accelerating the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild by utilizing the old Patrick Henry building as a temporary interim “swing space” for students.

The old Patrick Henry School became available after its replacement opened in January. The division had planned to tear the old building down to make room for parking and athletic fields. But with $4-5 million of retrofitting, the administration reckons the old building could become a swing space relatively quickly. This would allow advancing the reconstruction of Douglas MacArthur, currently not scheduled for completion until FY 2025.

This could save taxpayers “up to $60 million,” which then “could be reinvested in other school projects sooner and help mitigate rising costs,” according to the division administration. Some savings would come from taking ailing Douglas MacArthur systems off expensive life support sooner. The bulk of savings would come from eliminating a project dubbed “swing capacity and new school” in the School Board’s current adopted 10-year capital improvement budget. As currently slated, this project would receive funding in FY 2021-22 and become ready to receive students in FY 2023 — a necessary precondition before razing Douglas MacArthur.

A couple years ago, the plan for swing space was to convert the city’s Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center into a temporary school, at a cost of $42 million. An advisory task force at the time pooh-poohed the idea. Since the schools need additional capacity to handle swelling enrollment anyway, why spend money twice on both temporary conversion and permanent new construction? Instead, the task force recommended that “wherever possible, permanent structures should be built for swing space that can be later transitioned to a permanent school.” Hence the division’s presently slated swing-capacity-and-new-school project.

Though the prior School Board never specified what kind of permanent school the project would eventually become, a new middle school was a likely option. At least that’s partly how they reconciled not including a new middle school specifically in their budgets, despite present overcrowding. For two years running, they lamented in their adoption legislation that their budgets included “no solution for middle school capacity needs.”

Mignon Anthony, the division’s COO, believes Cora Kelly and George Mason, which also require rebuilding, won’t need swing space. She says those sites are big enough perhaps to construct new buildings alongside the old, averting the need to move students off-site. If that’s the case, the swing-capacity-and-new-school as slated could conceivably convert to a new middle school in FY 2026, after Douglas MacArthur’s completion.

Asked why the division would remove this potential middle school capacity from the current budget timeframe when the School Board has wrung its hands precisely about new middle school capacity, Anthony said: “we’re basically trying to use the asset we have [old Patrick Henry], take a pause on building a new school, because we don’t have a location” for it settled. Also, she thinks the money will need to be redirected toward rising costs elsewhere — namely, to expand high school capacity and address the results of pending system-wide facility condition assessments.

By eliminating the swing-capacity-and-new-school project, “we don’t want the community to think we’re just trying to do a bait-and-switch. … Yes, we still need space,” she said. “We’re all concerned with how we deal with the middle school issue. That’s something that we’re studying at the same time. … [But the funds are] going to be put to better use for right now, as we figure out what the answers are.”

Track the study and decision making process by following the “Swing Space Study,” bottom left at www.acps.k12.va.us/domain/1026.