Alexandria, VA – The Alexandria School Board voted 8-1 on Thursday, April 4, to use the vacant 1950s-era Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space during the modernization of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. The move means that until MacArthur is ready in 2023, hundreds of area students will go to school in an old building that was set to be demolished – right next door to the brand new Patrick Henry Elementary School.
ACPS held off the demolition of the old Patrick Henry school in March, after determining that it has a lack of swing space and faces a facilities crisis with multiple schools needing serious renovation. The decision left the public with less than a month to provide input before the board discussion, while ACPS maintained that it was costing money in contractural obligations to demolish the structure.
“I’m not thrilled with the timing of it, either,” School Board Member Chris Suarez said. “But I think this is a responsible approach, and one that will be implemented with fidelity, because I have faith in this board and that ability to provide the oversight that needs to happen.”
The Patrick Henry property will be home to 1,500 students, and ACPS will spend $5 million in renovating the old school. Meanwhile, the $55.58 million renovation of MacArthur will be moved up from 2025 to 2023. A community meeting was held on April 1 to discuss the plan, followed by the board’s action three days later. Board Member Heather Thornton was the lone dissenting vote.
“I know that we pulled the rug out beneath the Patrick Henry Community,” ACPS Chief Operating Officer Mignon R. Anthony told the board. “We didn’t start looking at it until January as a possible option. We have a three-phase construction process. The contractor is under contract right now. We are paying them for work that they are doing in order to not be moving along and demolishing this project.”
A Change.org petition against the proposal was signed by more than 500 people, and among the complaints leveled against the board were concerns that a traffic study was not conducted, that there was not enough time for public discourse or a thorough cost analysis of necessary renovations needed at the old Patrick Henry school.
“Now you’re proposing putting an entire school-worth of children, parents and staff into our neighborhood while neglecting to do proper traffic studies, proper impact studies,” West End resident Sarah Fanning told the board.
Patrick Henry parent Megumi Kito broke into tears at the meeting and said she was concerned that first responders would have difficulty navigating area roadways with such a packed campus, and that student outdoor activities will be limited without an athletic field.
“I’m so concerned about our kids, not only our kids, but Douglas MacArthur students as well,” she said.
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings said that ACPS already owns the land and school building at Patrick Henry and won’t need to retrofit the school to elementary students.
“Equity, in terms of why we needed to choose the old Patrick Henry, was really about us taking advantage of an opportunity to move a project forward,” Hutchings said. “It was an opportunity to move the Douglas MacArthur building forward at a faster pace and to take advantage of land and space that we actually own, because there really are no other options today. That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be options tomorrow, but there are no options today.”