The Alexandria School Board is finally taking a step back toward fiscal responsibility in the budget it is expected to pass in tonights budget adoption meeting. After years of runaway spending last years overall budget increased by a whopping 5.1 percent new Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) Superintendent Morton Sherman and School Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts have provided some much-needed leadership in crafting a budget that actually decreased by 0.9 percent from last year.
Although less than the 2 percent reduction recommended by City Council, the 0.9 percent decrease is nonetheless a significant step in the right direction. For example, last year salaries increased by 5.2 percent, but in the fiscal 10 budget salaries actually decrease by 3.7 percent (due to position eliminations and reductions). The cost per pupil decreased by almost $2,000, from $19,422 to $17,567 thousand.
Some of the more commendable features of the budget decrease are the fact that it was achieved without increasing classroom sizes (Alexandrias classroom sizes remain the smallest in Northern Virginia), and that the cuts took place despite a projected increase in enrollment of 353 students (probably a conservative estimate since enrollment increased, unexpectedly, by 668 students this year). Indeed, cutting the budget at all is a feat in the wake of this influx of new students, which was the largest percentage increase in all of Virginia.
Even greater savings could have been realized by privatizing the custodial function, but 61 Alexandrians would have lost their jobs in the midst of this recession. Privatization of support functions is often an effective way for governments, as well businesses, to save money. In the long run, the School Board may need to take another look at privatizing many functions, not just custodial. But in light of the worst economic conditions in a couple of generations, we find no fault with the compromise that lets current custodians keep their jobs with reduced hours.
We also commend the move to merge Minnie Howard with T.C. Williams High School. It has long seemed strange to have two schools for high school students, one for grade 9 and the other for grades 10-12, without really having two separate high schools. (The city might be better served in the long run to have two separate, smaller high schools that both serve grades 9-12 and that complement and compete with each other, but for now that is just a wish.) The merger of Minnie Howard with T.C. Williams will create cost efficiencies, provide educational opportunities for 9th graders that dont currently exist, expand the usage of the beautiful new T.C. campus and standardize policies.
Although this budget is a refreshing step in the right direction it is just that one step. Alexandrias cost per student of $17.6 thousand remains among the highest in Virginia. There are certainly far deeper cuts and greater efficiencies that can be obtained in the years to come. In next years budget process, perhaps an attempt can be made to cut various layers of administration. A broader look at the privatization issue is also in order. But in any attempt to curb spending, the first cut, though not always the deepest, is certainly very difficult.