School upgrade: Renovate or raze?

By Brian Kelly

Herald Writer

ARLINGTON — There’s a mixed bag of opinion over whether the Arlington School District should build a new elementary school or renovate Presidents Elementary.

The district recently released results of a survey probing residents’ thoughts about how to improve the school. Approximately 420 people were polled, and although the survey did not offer a one-question choice between the two options, respondents were able to offer comments at the end about which approach would be best.

In a tally of those comments, 30 respondents were clearly in favor of a new building. But 36 said they wanted the existing school renovated, or were undecided about the choice.

Arlington voters approved a $54 million bond measure last year, which will pay for a new high school and another elementary school called Pioneer Elementary. The renovation of Presidents Elementary was also part of the package. The modernization of the school is expected to cost about $8 million.

Presidents Elementary, on N. French Avenue, is made up of three buildings and dates to the 1950s. Supporters of a new school say constructing a new facility will mean improved security for staff and students, as well as the chance to reroute the traffic flow to the school. It would also be faster to build a new school than renovate the existing one.

School officials began talking about building a new Presidents Elementary earlier this year. That would include tearing down both the Lincoln and Washington buildings at the site and constructing a one-building elementary school. The other option is renovating the existing campus.

The automated telephone poll, set up by the Arlington Public Schools Facilities Committee, was conducted between March 30 and April 9.

"I was surprised that there was such a high-percentage support for a new building," said Rob Pattermann, an assistant superintendent with the Arlington district.

Most of those who participated in the poll, about 57 percent, were parents of children currently enrolled in Arlington schools.

When asked if they supported renovating Presidents Elementary — which would mean students going to school at the current high school site for a year — parents overwhelmingly said no to the idea, 132-51. Overall, 61 percent of the respondents said they couldn’t support the renovation idea.

The survey also asked if people would support replacing Presidents Elementary with a new school if it meant that no new tax dollars would be needed for the project. Approximately 84 percent of the responses supported the new school with that provision.

The telephone poll posed seven questions, then gave respondents a chance to leave a message at the end of the call.

Some disputed that the new construction could occur without additional tax money, and others said the last election was less than honest. Others warned that the district could face legal challenges if it tried to replace Presidents Elementary with a new school because that’s not what was on the ballot that voters approved.

"You need to listen to what the people said. They said renovate," one message said. It echoed another comment that said if the district had enough money to build a new school, then homeowners should get a tax refund.

One respondent said the questions were "very biased and obviously pro brand-new school." And others said renovation of the existing school makes more sense because it would provide 15 percent more space than a new building. What’s more, the district would be eligible for state money in 20 years if it renovated, compared with 30 years if it built a new school.

Pattermann said the committee tried to keep the survey balanced.

"We tried extremely hard with the information and the questions to present a very balanced approach to this," Pattermann said. But he added that they also wanted to make it clear that the committee favors building a new school.

"We tried to be obvious in our communication to the community that the facilities committee supports a new (school) versus a renovated."

The facilities committee may hold some meetings in the future to gather additional input before the school board is asked to make a decision on the project, Pattermann said.

"Obviously, we need to get to the place where we’re making a formal recommendation to the board. Between now and then we want to have some community information sessions or forums to be able to talk about the differences between these two projects," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Brian Kelly at 425-339-3422 or send e-mail to kelly@heraldnet.com.

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