Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Recent Developments: The Effect of the Proposed City Budget on our Schools

In addition to selecting a new superintendent and implementing a significant change in middle-school structure, the school board is also in the middle of their annual budget process.

  • In early March the board approved a budget that would increase the cost to the city by $7.4 million for the 2014-2015 school year, bringing the total ACPS budget to $235 million.
  • By contrast, in his submission to the city council, the city manager proposed increasing ACPS funding by only $5 million.

The city council will ultimately determine the level of funding available for ACPS. What’s the case for the additional $2.4 million provided for in the school board’s version of the budget?  It’s an issue of the number of students and the cost per student.

  • Number of students:  ACPS currently projects that student enrollment will increase by 548 in the coming school year. This year the city appropriation per student is $13,556.  Even if spending per student were held at that level, an enrollment increase of 500 would justify a $6.8 million boost to the budget.
  • Cost per student: The percentage of students in ACPS receiving free or reduced-price meals and the percentage of students who are English Language Learners is rising. Students in those two categories are more expensive to educate: This year ACPS is spending $3,500 more per ELL student than it spends per non-ELL student.

ACPS has been dealing with funding pressures for quite a while.  In fact, for the past seven years, the city appropriation per student has trended downward, from more than $15,000 in 2008 to around $13,500 last year (see Fiscal Overview presentation, chart labeled page 13). This has been accomplished partly by increasing class sizes.  For example, last year, elementary class sizes were increased by two students per class.

home_news_postitUnder the city manager’s proposed increase of $5 million, the downward trend in spending per pupil would continue. The budget passed by the school board, which requests an additional $2.4 million, would not increase spending per pupil; it would merely hold it constant. The total $7.4 million request from ACPS represents a 4% increase in funding to keep pace with the 4% expected growth in enrollment.

Many comparisons are made between Arlington and Alexandria because we compete against them in the real estate market for home buyers, and in the labor market for teachers. Our school populations are quite different, however.  About 60% of our students are economically-disadvantaged (as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced-priced meals); in Arlington, it’s 31%.  In Alexandria, 27% of our students are English Language Learners; in Arlington, it’s 19%.  And yet, Arlington spends $3,300 more per pupil than Alexandria does.

Last week, after listening to four hours of testimony from constituents during the public hearing, the city council voted 5 to 2 to raise the advertised property tax rate cap by ½ cent. Property taxes won’t necessarily go up by that amount, but the city council will have the flexibility to raise taxes by that amount when they adopt their final budget.

That ½ cent translates into $1.75 million potential additional spending for schools beyond the $5 million increase in the city manager’s proposed budget (assuming that the entire amount would be set aside for the schools), but even that is not enough to cover the $2.4 million gap between the city manager’s proposed budget and the budget passed by the school board.

Depending on how large the gap turns out to be, Superintendent Crawley and the school board may face some difficult choices: scale back or eliminate the proposed 1% pay increase for teachers and 2% pay increase for support staff; increase class sizes further; reduce course offerings at T.C. Williams; defer equipment and materials purchases; or cut back on extended learning programs at elementary schools.

One fact remains: Even as more and more children pour through our doors and hallways, our responsibility as a city and a school division to provide each of them with the education that they need and deserve is the same as it was one year, five years or 10 years ago when enrollments were lower.

If you believe that keeping per pupil spending next year at least closer to the same dollar level as this year is worth a ½-cent property tax rate increase—equal to an extra $25 on the annual tax bill for a $500,000 home—then let your city council members know.

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