In a nutshell, the city’s budget outlook is grim. While residential property values have been rising and will contribute additional revenue to the city, commercial tax revenue has been anemic. The economic recovery that much of the rest of the country is enjoying has not yet benefited Alexandria.
The city council has raised property taxes for two years in a row to fund important and much-needed spending and capital improvements, but particularly in an election year, they don’t relish the notion of a three-year record of tax increases. Without any property tax increase, however, there is only about $11 million of new funds available for the city to spend within a total budget of $815 million. The schools have been allocated $6 million of that in the city manager’s proposed budget, but even that leaves ACPS about $3 million short of covering the combined operating and capital improvement program budget that the school board passed in late February.
Meanwhile, the budget passed by the school board is a lean, no-frills course of action for the coming year. New initiatives in the budget are modest. There’s funding for a phased expansion of summer school, for instance, as well as resources to extend AVID to the middle-school grades at Jefferson-Houston and to explore the possibility of offering World Languages in our elementary schools. Enrollment is projected to rise by more than 500 students, or 3.7%, in the coming school year, continuing the pattern of the past several years. The combined funds budget is 2.8% higher than last year, which brings the average cost per student under this budget request to the city to $16,838, down from $17,025 currently. If ACPS receives $3 million less than they have requested—the amount recommended by the city manager—then the average cost per student would fall further to $16,635.
Between a third and a half of next year’s 500 new students will likely be English language learners, which require about $4,000 more in resources per student than a general education student. In other words, the decline in per-student spending might look fiscally responsible to a typical Alexandria voter who doesn’t have school-aged children, but it leaves the school division with fewer resources to meet the needs of an ever-more-challenging student body.
What will be on the chopping block if the city council maintains a no-tax-increase position through the remainder of the budget process? That would be for Superintendent Alvin Crawley and the school board to decide. But to give you some perspective on how difficult that circumstance would be, $3 million amounts to two-thirds of the cost of providing a full-step salary increase for teachers and staff. ACPS employees last received a full step increase four years ago, and according to Dr. Crawley, our school division’s job market competitiveness has dropped in several areas. Three million dollars is also slightly less than the cost of covering the number of teachers and support staff that is needed for 500 additional students. And it’s $1 million more than what the school board has set aside for maintenance projects at some of the school buildings that are charmingly old but structurally in decline.
The short-term problem is acute. Next year ACPS is inevitably going to have to find ways to do more with less, and we may lose some skilled teachers who will receive enticing offers from other districts. But there’s a more worrisome chronic long-term problem: By and large, Alexandria taxpayers aren’t eager to fully fund our schools and to make good on our obligation as a community to prepare our children to be successful students, employees and citizens. “Too many residents in Alexandria see our schools as a burden rather than an asset,” says Dorene Pickup, parent of a T.C. grad and a current T.C junior, and member of the ACPS Budget Advisory Committee. “They don’t know about all of the great things that are happening in our schools.”
My challenge to ACPS parents is two-fold: First, to address the immediate budget shortfall, I urge you to write to the Mayor and City Council via the online “Call-Click-Connect” system and let them know that you support the school division’s budget request. If possible, provide some specific examples of how your child’s school is suffering from crowded conditions or how the building is showing the effects of deferred maintenance. Tell the City Council that you would be willing to bear the 1% increase in taxes that would be required to fund the full budget request of the School Board. That increase would work out to about an extra $50 for an Alexandrian with a $500,000 home.
Time is of the essence, because the city council will vote on Tuesday, March 17, to set the maximum property tax rate for next year.* You can also testify in person at the public hearing on Monday, March 16, which begins at 4:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers in City Hall. Use this form to sign up to speak. (The docket number is 2.)
Second, to begin to reverse the negative public opinion about our schools that is so pervasive in our city, I urge you to reach out to five neighbors or friends who do not have children in ACPS and tell them about five great things that are happening at your child’s school or within ACPS. Invite them to an upcoming play or concert or athletic event. Brag a little if necessary. See if you can arrange for some of the older members of your church, synagogue or mosque to tour T.C. Williams or the new Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 School. Bit by bit, these conversations can help educate our electorate about our school division’s success stories as well as the challenges it faces.
Update: On March 17, the city council, as expected, voted to maintain the property tax rate at its current level for next year. That means that either they will need to make cuts in other areas of the city budget to cover part or all of the $3 million shortfall, or ACPS will be forced to make those cuts after the city budget is passed.
The annual Children’s Concert advertised in the most recent Port City Notebook post was snowed out. It has been rescheduled for Thursday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the Schlesinger Concert Hall.