Schools Say Only Bad News for Fiscal Future

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Call it bleak, call it trying or call it simply bad. The bottom line is not getting any easier for Alexandria City Public Schools in the year to come.

Last Thursday, Superintendent Morton Sherman and senior financial officers presented a fiscal forecast to the Alexandria School Board depicting a budget gap that could range from $10.9 million to as high as $17.5 million.

The budget figures bring to fruition what school officials have anticipated since last year when the ACPS budget received a smaller allocation from the city government following the nationwide economic skid.

That  $6 million disparity in possible cuts stems from varying projections of the citys allocation to the school system, Sherman said, with no specific bearing on what the actual funding total will be.

Its intended to be illustrative of possibilities and of the impact, from miserable news to just plain awful news, Sherman told the Board.

And the reason I say miserable news, Sherman continued, is that even if the budget were approved by this board and by the City Council and even if the city were able to, in some miraculous way, come up with additional funding the loss would be in the millions of dollars.

With expected decreases in revenue from state sources, even a 2-percent increase in the funding from the city, which provides more than 80 percent of the schools operating budget, would leave the schools $11 million short for the upcoming school year, according to school officials.

ACPS Chief Financial Officer Jean Sina said $11 million is equal to 254 full-time support staff positions, 116 full-time teachers or 76 administrative staff members.

A 2-percent decrease in funding for the second straight year would leave the schools facing the high-end projected deficit of more than $17.5 million, Sina said.

No increase in funding from last year could present the schools with a budget gap of more than $14 million, according to the projections.

Officials expect a 4-percent increase in the required contribution to the state employee retirement fund, escalating health care costs and other expenses related to another 400-plus students entering the school system to fuel the deficit for next year.

The financial projections appear even more dire in the context of the citys rapidly growing public school population over the last two years, which bucked a decades-old trend of less and less students within ACPS.

Even in the best-case scenario if the city is able to increase its contribution steadily over the next five years the schools will continue to operate in the red while enrollment is expected to increase nearly 14 percent, or more than 1,600 students above today, according to the presentation.
Several elementary schools already hold as many students as they can and school leaders have recognized the need for expansion or continued creativity to accommodate for additional future students.

With the city governments budget-trimming process in its early stages before its adoption in April, the school systems financial future hangs in the air. Board Member Marc Williams asked the financial staff just what the enrollment projections would mean in terms of available space.

These are high-level forecasts, Sina said. Many things may happen between today, tonight and December, January, February, March many things. But even if nothing happens, that doesnt equate necessarily to two or three schools.

Because we may need all of us to think differently about how we staff our schools or push us to do things differently.

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