As the City Council has struggled with issues of budgeting and taxation and spending in recent weeks, I have tried to think about the issues in broader terms than those on the table.
For the last couple of years, the City of Alexandria has been at a crossroads, trying to figure out which way to go. Should it stick with the values and practices of the past, as it tries to deal with current pressures for change? Or should it plan for the future and set goals to work toward, even though those goals may be hard to reach? Which way to go: the comfortable embrace of the status quo, with an occasional minor adjustment? Or the less comfortable job of grappling with the demands of a future whose challenges are cause for anxiety?
During the current budget season we’ve seen this struggle play out in many ways. Public funds to stem the tide of raw sewage and build yet another Metro station have captured most of the headlines; the first issue as a continuing threat to public health, the second as a support for further development. Also on the agenda has been the level of support for the Alexandria City Public School System. In an odd sort of way, these disparate issues reflect a similar problem: Alexandria’s inability over decades of urban expansion to put the city in gear, drive through that crossroads, and move toward the future.
The issue that concerns me the most is that of support for public schools. For reasons and pressures of the past and present, school buildings in Alexandria have been allowed to deteriorate. Herculean efforts were required to replace T.C. Williams High School a decade ago and, more recently, the crumbling disgrace that was Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.
Both efforts were essential, and the results of new construction brought a boost to civic pride and student achievement. But those efforts still generate controversy in the city’s meeting rooms, as some quietly question whether the schools cost too much, or should have been built at all. Similar doubts have been openly expressed about the nature and size of the ACPS 10-year Capital Improvement Program, designed to address the deterioration of city schools.
Justification for every part of the CIP, and for all of the funding that’s required for ACPS, can be found on the school system’s website. On a larger scale, I believe the city owes its children — every single one of them — the best education it can provide. It also owes that same result to us — Alexandria’s citizens, present and future — as students graduate and move into society.
Think of it as an investment: graduates of our schools will represent us one day, no matter what they become, or how well they do. Do we want their future achievements to represent the wisdom of a generation that gave them the education and skills to build a future for our community? Or do we want them simply to replace us as drivers of that city, idling at the crossroads? As a generation of voters and taxpayers do we want to be remembered only for making decades-late repairs to open sewers? Or also for investing in our children as future citizens of Alexandria?
I grumble every time I pay taxes, especially when they go up. But I will vote every time for candidates who make sure my taxes are spent with the challenges of the future — and not just the easier comforts of the past — in mind.
John E. Lennon
John Lennon is outgoing president of the T.C. Williams PTSA, and co-chaired the ACPS 2020 Strategic Planning Stakeholders Committee. He and his wife are parents of a T.C. Williams sophomore, and a 2014 TC graduate.