The Alexandria School Board will hold a public hearing tonight on its proposal to postpone for four years a planned expansion of the Minnie Howard School and use funds for that project to finance two other school construction jobs.
In January 2003, the school board approved three projects -- the expansion and renovation of Minnie Howard, the rebuilding of T.C. Williams High School and the renovation of Maury Elementary School -- but has found that it did not budget enough money to completely pay for any of them.
School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry has recommended delaying the start of the Minnie Howard project until 2008 and using part of its budget to help cover the cost of the new T.C. Williams building and renovations at Maury. Perry said the Minnie Howard expansion is not as urgent as the other projects and that delaying it is the most "reasonable" option.
At present, the Minnie Howard work could be funded only by deferring all elementary school construction work, along with the T.C. Williams rebuilding, Perry said.
"We either could have nickled-and-dimed the elementary schools to death and taken all the small projects, or taken it from Minnie Howard," Perry said.
When the district began taking construction bids for the Minnie Howard project in April, the lowest came in at $21 million, which was $6 million more than the board had budgeted the previous year.
The $80.5 million the board budgeted for the new T.C. Williams was also insufficient. The district now says the school will cost at least $98.9 million, making it the most expensive public building the city has ever built.
Perry said the projects are over budget because architects' estimates were lower than the eventual bids and because the price of building materials and fuel has risen recently. The district also has enhanced the design of the T.C. Williams building.
The district used $1 million of the Minnie Howard funds for renovations to the ninth-grade school, including installing a new roof and classroom carpet and painting the building and student lockers. The district had planned to spend $12 million to add a wing of about 10 classrooms, expand the cafeteria and student commons and add an area for administrators.
Perry said that Minnie Howard's enrollment, now about 700, is growing but that the building will be able to support that growth for at least five years.
"The educational environment and the safety environment, in fact, won't be affected by the delay," Perry said.
At T.C. Williams, which opened in 1965, enrollment is 400 students over capacity, roofs are leaking and ventilation is poor, district officials said.
"To put it simply, it's kind of worn out," said Jay Johnson, assistant superintendent for administration and finance.
Construction on the new T.C. Williams is to start in December and be completed in 2007. To make up for the $18.4 million gap in funding, Perry wants to use $2.5 million from the city's education reserve fund each year for four years, for a total of $10 million. The remaining $8.4 million would come from the Minnie Howard funds.
Bonds are not an option. The City of Alexandria's bonding capacity is at its maximum until 2008. Under the superintendent's proposal, the Minnie Howard project would be rebudgeted at that time.
Renovations to one wing of classrooms at Maury Elementary are currently underway, though that project is also underfunded -- the district budgeted about $2.5 million, while the lowest bid came in about $3.6 million. Perry is recommending taking the balance from the Minnie Howard funds.
The School Board will take comments and questions from the public at a hearing at 7:30 tonight in the School Board meeting room at 2000 N. Beauregard St. Perry said the board will consider the feedback before voting on how to reshuffle funding for the three projects at its Oct. 7 board meeting.
For more information on the projects, visit the school system's Web site at www.acps.k12.va.us.