No fat in school budget proposal

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At some point, teaching more kids is going to cost more money.

Based upon Superintendent Morton Shermans budget proposal for the 2010-2011 school year, that point is just around the corner for Alexandria City Public Schools.

Despite strategically rearranging nearly 20 percent of its resources over the past two years of economic listlessness and cutting 11 full-time employees overall, Shermans draft financial plan to the School Board last Thursday calls for a $201.8 million operating budget $4.25 million more than this years budget to accommodate the 12,000-plus students expected to enroll next fall.

Sherman, speaking on the importance of public schooling in shaping Americans and, by extension, America, introduced the plan as a way to bridge generations and pay it forward.

This is an amazing, terrific budget for our students and for future generations of students, because if we fall behind now, how do we support those next generations if were always trying to catch up to what might have been? Sherman said.

The budget places a cap on elementary school class sizes, adds teachers at each level an addition totaling 31 full-time instructional positions and maintains several  exemplary programs while granting raises to all school staff, Sherman told the Board.

On the other side of the coin, those bright spots were made possible by maximizing efficiencies and accountabilities and asking for some sacrifices from school staff, Sherman explained.

The budget proposal would cut discretionary summer school programs like Super Summer, a program that allows students to pursue individual interests over the summer, in addition to restructuring the basic summer school offering.

The sacrifices Sherman referred to include increased responsibility for health and retirement benefits, shorter less lucrative contracts, and a net loss of five positions in the curriculum and instruction office. The end result, officials say, are necessary evils that help avoid full-fledged cutting.

All things considered, School Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts was appreciative of the effort that went into mitigating the impact of some exceptionally trying circumstances.

I am pleased to see that he is trying to make sure the school system keeps moving forward in these tough economic times instead of having to make some really tough budget cuts and so far I havent seen anything like neighboring jurisdictions are having to do, Folkerts said Tuesday.

Folkerts was referring to headlines from Fairfax, where school leaders are facing wholesale cuts of athletic programs among other seemingly drastic measures, and other localities facing budget gaps far greater than Alexandrias.

For city taxpayers, the proposal would mean a 2.4 percent increase in their contribution to the public schools, a total of $168.8 million, according to budget documents.

However, after last years $3.6 million decrease in city-school funding, budget documents show that this years gain would amount to a net increase of less than 1 percent from 2009 to 2011 all while enrollment surged by nearly 7 percent.

Forces outside the city limits have placed an additional burden on school planners, saddling them with increased costs for health benefits and retirement plan contributions, all while state funding for Alexandria schools decreases by 3.5 percent.

The budget offsets the $9.2 million increase in salary and benefit costs by asking employees to contribute more toward their health care programs and 1 percent of their salaries toward a supplemental retirement program that, as of now, ACPS pays for.

There is no fat in this years budget, which makes creating next years budget a piece of cake, if I can mix food metaphors, Sherman said. In fact, every single employee in this school district will financially share part of the responsibility for moving ahead.

That act of sharing starts at the top, where the proposed budget calls for Sherman to take an $8,300 pay cut from his own $248,000 salary.

For teachers and paraprofessionals who would normally get a raise halfway through the year, that pay increase would be short-lived because the proposed budget would reduce their contracts by two days, negating gains made last year when stimulus money helped to finance the longer contracts for educational staff.

The shorter contract and retirement contributions would equate to about a 2 percent decrease in their earnings, notwithstanding raises called for in the proposal.

These are tough times and I know part of the issue will be understanding all of the benefit changes but its better that than to have massive job cuts, Folkerts said.

In crafting the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 of this year, school planners worked with the city managers office, which forecast a 2 percent increase on last years funding base, Sherman said.

While it remains unclear this early in the budget cycle as to whether the city could afford the proposals 2.4 percent increase, that should shake out in the weeks to come as the School Board revises Shermans draft and City Council does the same for its own financial plan.

The Board has budget work sessions scheduled for January 28 and February 2 at ACPS headquarters and a public hearing is planned for February 11. 

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