Council faces difficult choices as budget showdown nears


Editors Note: Over the next two weeks, The Alexandria Times will look at both the city budget and the school systems budget and their growth. This week: The schools.

Before the Alexandria City Council adopts a budget for fiscal year 2008 on May 7, members are holding work sessions with city staff to look at the city managers proposed budget and the ramifications of making changes. They must decide whether to provide a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to city employees, whether to increase the real estate tax rate and whether to provide full funding to the public school system.

We cannot fund everything and keep our real estate tax rate at its current level of 81.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, City Manager Jim Hartmann told Council when he presented his proposed budget. You all are going to have to make some very difficult choices over the next few months.

Those difficult choices have begun as Council is taking a hard look at every program and, especially, at how to control the cost of salaries and benefits. Hartmann is not proposing a COLA for city employees but is spending an extra $530,000 to add a step to the top of the citys salary scale so that all eligible employees can receive a merit raise.

The school board has included a two percent COLA for their employees and a step increase for everyone who is eligible. The city manager is proposing to fund retiree benefits at their current level while the school board is proposing to hold retirees harmless for any increases.

Overall, the city manager proposed increasing city support for the school system by 3.75 percent while the citys own operating expenses would increase by .2 percent under Hartmanns proposal.

We cannot continue to support annual governmental increases of seven or eight percent as we have done over the past several years, said Councilman Tim Lovain. We have to get a handle on our costs both on the city and the school side. I cant believe that one year of budget tightening is going to cut into the bone; there has to be some excess meat here. Its a matter of finding it.

School dollars and cents
Since 2005, the city contribution to the school systems budget has increased an average of 7.625 percent each year. This year, the school board is requesting an increase of 8.4 percent. As the budget has increased, student enrollment has declined by just over seven percent. According to information obtained from the Washington Area Boards of Education web site, the per pupil cost in Alexandria for the 2006-07 school year is $18,232. This compares to Arlington with a per pupil cost of $17,958; Falls Church, $17,700; Fairfax County, $12,853; Loudoun County, $12,023; Prince William County, $10,378; Montgomery County, $13,446, and Prince Georges County, $10,332.

One explanation for the high per pupil cost in Alexandria is student demographics. Alexandria has the highest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, 61.6 percent. The public school system with the next highest percentage of such students is Prince Georges County, with 42.1 percent, followed by Arlington with 35.4 percent, Prince William with 25.3 percent and Fairfax County with 19.8 percent. The school system with the lowest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch is Falls Church with 8.5 percent.

Educators argue that one way to improve student achievement is to keep class sizes small, especially where there are large numbers of at-risk students. Overall, Alexandria has the smallest class sizes in Northern Virginia: elementary school, 18.8 per class; middle school, 16 per class and there is an average of 17.5 pupils in every class at T. C. Williams.

Arlington County has an average of 19.2 students per class in elementary school; 19.5 per class in middle school and 18.5 per class in high school. In Fairfax County, there are an average of 20.7 children per class in elementary school, 23.1 in middle school and 23.9 in high school.

Although T. C. Williams SAT scores improved significantly last year, they are still the lowest in Northern Virginia with a composite of 1530 on the new 2400 scale. Arlington County students scored 1620; Fairfax County students, 1643, and Falls Church students, 1709.

As we look at the entire budget, we look for how efficiently money is being spent, said Councilman Paul Smedberg. We look at the effectiveness of programs and, of course, at the cost of personnel. I would hope that the School Board is doing the same thing. I do have some concerns about the number of people that are in administrative positions in the school system and about the amount of money that is being spent on them, said Smedberg.

Mayor William Euille said, I would suspect that the budget growth is largely attributable to increasing salaries and benefits. We have to find a way to get this under control.

In response to a question from school board Chairman Arthur Peabody during the school boards budget deliberations, Superintendent Rebecca Perry provided information about salaries and benefits for central office staff. There are 121 fulltime equivalent positions that cost nearly $12 million: $8.7687 million in salaries and $3.044 million in benefits. There are 21 people making more than $100,000 per year in salary alone. Benefits are an average of 37 percent of salary.

Perry earns $216,231.64 in salary per year. Her counterpart in Arlington has an annual salary of $216,510. In Fairfax County, the superintendent earns $266,292; and in Falls Church, $162,100. Alexandria has a total enrollment of 10,150 students; Arlington, 18,411; Fairfax County, 164,284 and Falls Church, 1,882.

In a tight budget year, we wanted to examine all expenditures, including central office and administration, said Peabody. As a result of the budget process over $1.5 million was cut from central office administration, including staff positions. The approved school board budget cut a net of 61.5 positions throughout the school system.

According to the information provided by school staff, two fulltime equivalent positions were deleted from the F Y 2008 proposed budget. In 2005, 9.15 positions were added to central office. In 2006, 2.5 fulltime equivalent positions were added and in 2007, two fulltime equivalent positions were deleted.

In Arlington, the school board has a revenue sharing agreement with the County Board of Supervisors. We get a certain percentage of the countys revenues to spend on the public schools, said school board Chair Libby Garvey. This has made our budget process much simpler. When the superintendent prepares his budget he does so based on revenue projections. Over the past several years, we have been fortunate because actual revenue has been higher than those projections. We have spent that extra money on one-time capital projects as opposed to recurring items such as salaries and benefits.

This year, the superintendent has proposed spending .1 percent less than we spent this year. When we pass a budget, we will hold a State of the Schools presentation for the county board but wont have to debate the budget with them. If our enrollment increases, we get more money and if it declines, we get less. The key is that the only unknown is the amount of revenue that is going to be available, Garvey said.