Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The surge in home prices, particularly in North Arlington, was a major prompter of the Missing Middle zoning changes that kicked in last month. But it has exerted another, unintended and surprising, effect on public schools.

What had been a largely steady rise in the 28,000 student population in the past two decades — requiring the opening or expanding of six schools since 2019 — is leveling off. Projections for 2022-32 show a 4.2 percent decline.

But here’s the kicker: The decline of birth rates among families (coupled with some defections to private schools during Covid) is disproportionately hitting expensive North Arlington, where some schools are using only 85 percent of their capacity while South Arlington schools are bursting, in one zone at 122 percent.

One school that has seen a drop in enrollment, Nottingham Elementary (built 1951), was tagged in late June for conversion to “swing space,” to temporarily accommodate students and faculty while their home school is renovated.

Parents — and future parents — in the Nottingham zone are angry and organizing.

Steering the tough decisions is Lisa Stengle, executive director of planning. Though the demographers are keeping an eye on the impact of Missing Middle zoning and the Langston Blvd reimagining, “Missing Middle’s impact will probably be pretty neutral for a while,” she told me, despite fears among some about overcrowding. “It will probably bring some students, but they will fit within what we’ve got and be spread across neighborhoods.”

Citing a new pre-Capital Improvement Plan report and a board work session June 29, Stengle said times have changed since the school population from 2009-2019 grew 41 percent, gaining a record 7,800 students. “Right now we’re seeing it reduced slightly to 27,455 pre-Covid. My office projections for the short-term expect a small increase to 28,000 in 2025, but in the longer-term, to 2032, a decrease to about 27,000.”

Swing space, she says, eases renovations at other schools, thus saving money. After examining 61 possible sites, staff concluded that closing Nottingham fits the bill for a projection to balance the North Arlington school buildings at 97 percent capacity use. That’s because Nottingham’s enrollment (419) is low and flat through 2027-28; 140 of its 420 students are within the walk zones for Discovery and Tuckahoe elementary schools (which have unused space), and because Nottingham’s five trailers could help with swing space, the report said. The change, following boundary changes, would begin in 2026-27.

Scrambling to oppose the move are a Neighbors for Nottingham group (387 on its Facebook page). Another at has distributed fliers to area homes. And imploring the board to reconsider is a Nottingham-based School Board Advocacy Committee. “The proposal lacks sufficient data around what schools will be impacted by these proposed improvements, how traffic and transportation will be addressed across the county and what the retention plan is for teachers and staff at the affected schools,” spokeswoman Erin Weinstein, a Nottingham parent, told me. “It lacks transparency and equity and has not seriously taken into consideration any less disruptive alternatives to dismantling thriving neighborhood schools within Arlington.” 

After “table sessions” for the public beginning this month, the school board will meet Aug. 3 and Sept. 15 for feedback before an Oct. 12 vote. It’s “going to be very emotional,” said school board member Mary Kadera, who was a PTA president when McKinley school was slated for closing in 2019. “We don’t take the decision lightly. There’s anxiety and concern. We are members of this school community, but also members of larger APS. We try to be good members of both.” Her advice: “Reserve judgment, look at data, interrogate the rationale, and be thoughtful about engagement before rushing to a conclusion.”

 Adds Stengle: “No one wants to close a school. If we’re wrong about the impact of Missing Middle and Plan Langston, we can convert this back. We don’t want to do what we did 50 years ago and give away all these buildings.”