Parents push for schools funding in city budget

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Parents push for schools funding in city budget
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

For perennial city budget hawks, the difference between the city’s public budget hearing Monday afternoon and last year’s iteration couldn’t be more stark.

Groups of residents and employees, from local library advocates and juvenile court judges to police officers and senior service advocates, who last year all expressed dismay at proposed allotments to city programs, all lauded Acting City Manager Mark Jinks for preserving or bolstering funding. Libraries would see an increase in their materials budget; police officers are slated for a pay raise, and there are no cuts in programs for seniors proposed for fiscal 2016.

Instead, one issue quickly took center stage as residents read their prepared statements to city councilors: education funding. Although the city’s proposed budget includes $197.8 million for Alexandria City Public Schools — a $6 million increase, representing 55 percent of all new general fund revenue — that number still falls just over $3 million short of the district’s $201 million request from City Hall.

Parent after parent spoke of the need for additional funding for education in the budget. Melissa Harrington, a parent at George Mason Elementary School, said the school system’s proposal is a modest effort to keep up with enrollment and maintain quality instruction.

“The proposal is lean with no frills, and the initiatives in it are very modest,” she said. “That $3 million is needed to keep up with school growth, dealing with our facilities, which are crumbling and leaking, and to retain teachers.”

The budget proposal put forth by schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley includes a full step increase for all teachers and staff, which district leaders argue is needed to keep up with surrounding jurisdictions and to attract and retain quality teachers.

“Arlington [County Public Schools’] per-pupil spending is higher, while their percentages of English Language Learners and students eligible for free and reduced lunches are lower,” Harrington said. “A significant portion of the recent enrollment increases [in Alexandria] need ELL services and need much more support.”

Kathy Matthews, president of the James K. Polk Elementary Parent Teacher Association, echoed those comments with her experience walking the halls of her child’s school.

“Our school facilities have not been able to keep up with the city’s growing population,” she said. “At Polk, there are classrooms literally in storage closets and in our library.”

Nearly every parent that spoke in favor of fully funding the school system’s budget request also announced his or her support for a proposal to close the gap.

“[The funding gap] also cannot be offset by just volunteers, who are already doing so much in our schools,” said Marie Randall, a parent of children both at George Mason Elementary and George Washington Middle School. “[It] is our responsibility to be able to provide for all of our students, and in order to do that I would also support a 1 percent increase in [property] taxes that would go to the schools.”

Elsewhere, Maury Elementary School parents and students advocated for city leaders to include money to pay for storm water management upgrades to coincide with their proposal to renovate the school’s playground, which suffers from severe drainage issues, through a combination of ACPS and private funding.

Maury parent Kyle Lynch described the current situation in the schoolyard as “disastrous.”

“The city owns the property on which Maury sits, yet the city’s answer so far has been to add curb cuts onto Russell Road, which just allows more water, mud and silt into the city’s sewers, hardly a permanent answer to the problem,” he said. “This is not just about fixing the flooding, muddy or icy sidewalks on Russell Road that our children are forced to navigate each day.

“This is about finding a permanent solution to the drainage issue that cause these problems, [which] can only be done by fixing the drainage on and under the schoolyard itself.”

And cycling advocates decried cuts to transportation upgrades, from the operating cost incurred by the planned expansion of Capital Bikeshare stations to the long-planned extensions of the Cameron Run and Backlick Run bicycle trails.

“With the extension of Capital Bikeshare, all that is lacking are $10,000 per year, per station, for operating funds,” said Jim Durham, chairman of the city bicycling and pedestrian advisory committee. “[If cut], the developer contributions that have been set aside for Bikeshare could revert to the developers and be lost to the city.”

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