Overcrowding in Alexandria City Public Schools and each candidate’s performance on Alexandria City Council took center stage Monday during a debate between Democratic Mayor Bill Euille and independent challenger Andrew Macdonald, who previously served on the council.
The forum at the George Washington Middle School auditorium was sponsored by ACTion Alexandria, the Alexandria Chapter of the NAACP and the three Alexandria Patch sites. Each candidate was asked how he would work with the school board to address overcrowding in city schools, provoking disagreement between the two men.
Euille said increasing enrollment in the school system is a good thing but that the city needs to expand pre-kindergarten programs. The council is working with the school board to analyze enrollment projections and making sure they are valid before deciding how many new schools to build and where they should be located.
“The real fear I have is that we don’t want to build the schools and not have the population to fill them, and then we have underutilized facilities,” Euille said.
Macdonald countered, “We’re several thousand students beyond the point where we should be thinking about this. … I would argue that there has been a real lack of planning right from the beginning.”
Development projects have not paid off in terms of providing schools or infrastructure for schools, he said. “Obviously we need to work much more closely with the school board, the planning department, with the community, to look ahead.”
Euille responded that the city has had budget discussions for years related to schools and a planning process.
“The planning process, it’s not something that you just wake up today and say, ‘We need a new school there and bonds to pay for it,’ ” Euille said. “It’s a long process, it has to be carefully planned, one, because you have to have confidence in the enrollment projections, but then, secondly, in terms of where you build the schools and then you look at where future development is, where it’s needed, before you actually move forward."
Macdonald reminded the audience that public schools are a huge part of the city budget. “We’ve been developing helter-skelter without thinking about this,” he said. “…We have not been thinking ahead carefully, and now we really have some very serious infrastructure problems, schools are just one of many.”
The debate moderators, noting the two men have previously worked on council together, asked them to critique each other’s leadership skills and decision-making processes.
Euille, noting that Macdonald has branded himself as an independent voice for council, questioned whether he’d be a “team player.”
“But to be mayor of a city, you can’t be independent,” he said. “You have to be a person that is a team player that facilitates the collaboration partnership. … You have to be able to provide that leadership and bring people together, and I don’t think you did that when you were on the council.”
Macdonald said it was hard to say he was not a team player on council. Instead, he said fellow city council members had strict agendas involving developers. In other areas, including environmental issues and parking permits, healthcare workers and services for the elderly, he worked as part of a team, he said.
“I would argue that I wasn’t really given much of a chance to be a team player,” he said.
The candidates were asked how the city’s budget can do more with less following the reduction of state and federal funding.
Euille said the city doesn’t rely as much on some government funding as other municipalities but added he is concerned about the effects of the looming federal sequestration measure, which the city must be prepared to face. Macdonald said the city needs to be more careful in planning from the onset and not expect future development to pay for city needs.
Another question asked the candidates why many minority groups feel excluded from city government and asked each one to rate their “cultural competency” on a scale of 1 to 10. Macdonald said city residents often feel left out of the decision-making process and that city officials hold many meetings while gathering little input.
“Everything that we do, all the key things that we do as a community to provide a social net, a safety net for the community, revolves around community input,” Macdonald said. “In other words, it involves us working effectively.” He rated himself as an eight on the cultural competency question.
Euille noted he has worked with nonprofits that advocate for minorities. He stressed the need for a unified community, involving all races and ethnicities, houses of worship, nonprofits and businesses, to address problems.
“It’s not so much just about talking about bringing people together as it is being engaged and part of the process, which I’ve been doing for many, many years,” he said. He rated himself as a 10 on the cultural competency question.
The men also had a back-and-forth exchange on affordable housing. Macdonald said although a housing master plan has been in preparation since 2002, the city has been losing affordable housing for last 10 years.
“We have lots of ideas, but no cohesive plan for affordable housing in this city,” he said. “And it’s lacking. It’s been lacking for a good, long time.”
Euille acknowledged that the city does have affordable housing challenges. The city needs to engage in public-private partnerships, he said, and he noted 77 units of affordable housing are coming to Del Ray.
“The challenge we face in this community, first of all, affordable housing should not just be for low-income people. There should be affordability for people at all income levels," Euille said. "But the challenge we really face is not unique to Alexandria. It’s a national phenomenon.” Euille also called on state government to impose rent controls.
Del Ray Patch editor Drew Hansen served as a moderator alongside NAACP member Alexis Stackhouse. John Porter of ACTion Alexandria served as emcee.