School budget gap could affect instruction

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

When Superintendent Alvin Crawley unveiled his $252.8 million budget for Alexandria City Public Schools in January, he warned that the district’s belt was as tight as it could get.

“If we have to make additional cuts, some of the things I have described as critical elements to success for our schools, we’ll have to go back and look at them,” he said at the time. “From class-size increases to the flex positions that are so critical to our schools, we’ll have to look at these folks and the work they do, along with benefits for current employees as well as retirees.”

Although the school board approved Crawley’s fiscal 2015 budget virtually unchanged last week, it faces an uphill battle in city council chambers. He wants $7.4 million more than this year, but city officials only have given him a $5 million increase.

Though city councilors approved an advertised a potential half-cent tax hike to give them wiggle room during budget negotiations, there’s no guarantee the district would see any portion of the extra dollars.

School leaders, in turn, have repeated their warnings, saying the shortfall would impair teachers’ abilities to improve student achievement.

“We have the reality of the funding gap, so we’ll need to look at additional areas to cut,” Crawley said. “At this point, we’ll probably have to go into the school house.”

That means possibly cutting staff members who aid with instruction and professional development. These are known as flex positions because principals can choose how to fill the slots on their faculty.

“We may have to consider the improvement and intervention positions, positions that are funded based on the needs of the individual school building,” he said. “But we’ll have to look at a range of options. Other things may have to come back on the table.”

School board chairwoman Karen Graf is holding out hope that the city council restores the additional $2.4 million in funding during budget talks. Instructional support positions are vital to turning around struggling schools, she said.

“Those positions are really important — some working with teachers to help them improve lesson plans and others helping to interpret data to better focus teachers on certain areas,” Graf said. “Say, perhaps some kids did not pick up on fractions, so they’re analyzing and collecting assessments and they can say, ‘Here’s how we have to approach fractions with these kids.’

“Without those reinforcements, teachers may not necessarily analyze what’s happening from the higher level.”

Despite the tight budgetary constraints the city faces, Graf said officials must make a commitment to students in order for them to succeed.

“Right now, I feel like ACPS is working with a skeleton crew; we’re not as bloated as the rumors would say,” Graf said. “[There] is a correlation between investment at the city level and achievement in the schools. We’re at 29 percent of the city budget, whereas most jurisdictions range between 31 [percent] and 47 percent. So why aren’t we doing what [other jurisdictions] are doing?”

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