Alexandria Dysfunction Busters?

City manager appoints politically impartial city-schools capital planning task force.

Newly named appointees to a new joint task force will advise the city and public schools how to align their roughly $700 million of combined long-term capital projects.

The task force was formed in the wake of the FY2018 budget process about how to fund the city and schools’ many and costly infrastructure needs. These needs include renovating substandard municipal and school facilities, as well as building new schools. Certain elected officials characterized the two bodies’ interaction as politically dysfunctional. They lamented a history of not planning together effectively; not communicating civilly; not establishing trust; and not surmounting “politics” and “games,” as Councilman Paul Smedberg put it at a May 1 council work session. They insisted upon task force neutrality.

The task force is designed expressly to be politically impartial: no current or former elected officials, appointees of elected officials, city or school employees, or city or school contractors were allowed.

The school system “supports joint planning efforts” and “looks forward to seeing the recommendations,” said Communications Director Helen Lloyd in a statement. School Board Chair Ramee Gentry has also signalled support.

Though, throughout the budget process, the School Board as a whole exhibited less unanimity. Certain members said they thought existing processes that include elected officials and staff, such as joint budget work sessions, should suffice. “My opinion on the task force has not changed,” said School Board member Christopher Lewis in an email. “[T]he School Board … did not approve a resolution in support of a task force. I believe that both sets of elected officials can task staff to coordinate with each other to propose an approach [to] the budget, but we have failed to effectively produce collaboration on that level for years. … I hope that the Council's Task Force considers the years of work to develop the modernization plan and look forward [to] hearing their recommendations.”

When the March 8 joint budget work session concluded with an acknowledged need for further discussion and a suggestion to schedule a second joint work session, a second meeting never took place. “Given the emergence of the Task Force proposal, we didn’t have much to discuss at that point,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson in an email.

The task force is charged to develop a mutually agreeable Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) — a prioritization of city and school facilities projects over the next 10 or more years. It will also develop principles and methods for streamlining the CIP’s joint execution, including, for example, joint facility usage and management. Council and the School Board will consider the task force’s recommendations in the FY2019 budget process.

City Manager Mark Jinks selected nine appointees from a pool of about twice as many applicants, including three nominees from Dr. Alvin Crawley, the schools’ outgoing superintendent. Though the city is also considering hiring a professional consulting firm, the task force appointees themselves are citizen volunteers with expertise in relevant fields.

Lynn Hampton, who will serve as chair, was formerly the CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. She dealt with some $12 billion in capital projects over her career, including extending Metrorail toward Dulles Airport. She subsequently consulted on infrastructure projects internationally. She says the task force’s job is “to make sure that the taxes that were passed [in May] are used for the purpose” for which they are intended. From her experience, she says she brings to the table an understanding of “communication, negotiation … [and] transparency.” She thinks the task force can advise about capital needs “on the current plate, but also … give [advice] to the city and the School Board on how to go forward.”

Mignon Anthony is the executive director of the Baltimore City Public Schools’ 21st Century Buildings Program — a $1 billion program to close 26 schools and build 28 new ones. She lives in Maryland, but has family and professional history in Alexandria. She has experience navigating “lots and lots of factions, lots and lots of politics” in Baltimore. She also has experience fostering creative relationships between different institutions, beyond just city governments and school systems. “I think you have to start with the bricks and mortar,” she said. But she thinks her chief contribution will be “understanding that that broad view can grow into something more,” including greater collaboration and mutual support across sectors and levels of government.

Amy Liu heads up the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research group. “I look at cities as holistic systems,” she said. “So, how … decisions and economic development, infrastructure, land use planning, housing … all come together to create prosperous communities.” She intends to be objective, keep an open mind, and stay grounded in a larger purpose. “Facilities and infrastructure planning [are] a means to an end. And I want to make sure that the conversations are all about … positively supporting our goals for an educated … student body and future work force. … I don’t want this just to be about an infrastructure conversation by itself.” Her two children attend Jefferson-Houston School.

Eric R. Wagner is an executive at MedStar Health, a regional healthcare services company. He says he has extensive experience adjudicating demands for limited capital. “We’re always looking for synergies … And my sense is that that’s part of the discussion that we’re going to have for Alexandria. … If we’re going to make resource investments in our schools, how can that be helpful for other needs that we have in the city?” Though it’s hard to predict at this early stage, “in my experience, I think there are often side benefits that come from this kind of deliberative work that could be more broad than what the charter has asked for.” A 30-year resident, he had children in the school system and has served in numerous civic capacities, including chairing the Planning Commission.

The other task force appointees were unable to be reached for comment. Elliot Branch is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Acquisition and Procurement. Micheline Castan-Smith is a senior project manager for Paradigm Development Company, a residential real estate developer. Marshall Cook is a former president of the Education Association of Alexandria, an advocacy organization. Dwight Dunton founded and leads the Bonaventure Realty Group, a residential real estate developer. Dave Millard is a principal with Avison Young, a commercial real estate services company.

Wagner says he is “encouraged” by the city and schools’ approach to the task force so far. “I’d like people to believe — which I believe totally to be true — that … we’re all people of good faith… Sometimes the conversation gets a little too acrimonious in town, and people ascribe bad motives to those who are in advisory roles or to our City Council leadership or the mayor or the city staff. I’d love for people to come into this and believe that everybody is approaching this from a good faith perspective.”

All task force meetings are open to the public. The first meeting, to take place this month, will focus on establishing project prioritization criteria and subcommittees. The task force will meet again in September to create a draft CIP, and then hone the draft in regular meetings through September and October. The council and the School Board will engage the task force’s recommendations in joint work sessions in late October and mid-December.

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