The head of Alexandria's School Board budget advisory committee has accused the City Council of taking money needed to prevent middle school crowding and spending it on such items as a $6 million parking garage, a $2.5 million animal center and an $800,000 cupola for the Nannie J. Lee Memorial Recreation Center.
Budget Advisory Committee Chairman Tracy Rickett, a public school parent appointed to his volunteer position, made the charges in a statement sent to media organizations after City Council members showed little support for building two new sixth-grade centers at a cost of $17.6 million.
"Surely educating our children in uncrowded facilities is at least as important as cars, cats and cupolas," Rickett's statement said, referring to the projects that the council chose to fund. He said the city has endangered its financial reputation by letting its schools become too crowded.
Many Alexandria School Board members have privately expressed views similar to Rickett's. But those who commented on his statement said they thought the problem of crowding in middle schools would be resolved.
"I think it will probably work out," said School Board member Mary M. "Mollie" Danforth. She said, however, that it may take some more crowding and residents' complaints to the council before the money is provided.
School Board Chairman Stephen J. Kenealy said he, Vice Chairman Claire M. Eberwein, Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) and Vice Mayor William Euille (D) have met twice to resolve funding issues and will meet again in September. "We will try and work out amicable arrangements," Kenealy said.
Euille disputed several of Rickett's comments. He said the council shared the board's concern about middle school crowding but thought there were interim measures--such as returning some sixth-grade classes to underused elementary school buildings--that would cost less than constructing sixth-grade centers on the campuses of George Washington and Hammond middle schools.
Euille said the five city projects that Rickett labeled less important than new school space--the others were a $3 million recreation center and a $12.7 million library--are just as vital to many city residents and have been waiting as much as five years for full funding.
The vice mayor said the city is reviewing its borrowing authority and looking for other ways to raise money for school construction. "One way is to raise taxes, but I am not sure that is the right answer," he said.
Rickett said yesterday that his statement was motivated in part by frustration at what he thought was two years of council refusal to address the crowding issue. He noted that the council earlier killed funding for a $20 million project to ease middle school crowding by moving ninth-graders from the Minnie Howard school to the campus of T.C. Williams High School and turning Howard into a third middle school for sixth- through eighth-graders.
Rickett said he also was irked by repeated reminders from council members that only 15 percent of Alexandria households have children in the public schools. If city residents lose confidence in the schools, he said, "it will affect a lot more than 15 percent of the population. Many families will not want to locate here or stay here."