By Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)
Exiting a joint meeting between city councilors and members of the Alexandria City School Board, city and schools leaders appeared no closer to resolving a more than $3 million budget impasse.
School board members requested $201 million from City Hall for fiscal 2016, but in Acting City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed budget, the city would only allocate $198 million, with 55 percent of all new city revenue going to local schools.
While school board members argued that the additional funding is needed to address enrollment increases and aging infrastructure, city councilors demanded greater accountability on capital projects.
Jinks said the $6 million increase he proposed demonstrates continued commitment to the school district and complies with debt and capital policies. He noted that education funding makes up 35 percent of the city’s proposed operating budget.
“The challenge this year was that our revenue growth was anemic, to say the least,” Jinks said. “We only had a growth of $11.1 million on a budget of $648 million, so it was very small revenue growth … and one of the lowest tax revenue growths we’ve seen in recent years.”
But school board chairwoman Karen Graf said all but two schools are currently over capacity. Graf said that 60.3 percent of ACPS students are eligible for free and reduced lunches — the highest ratio in the region — and enrollment growth from 2012 to 2016 is up 4.3 percent, with more than 500 new students projected to enroll next year.
According to statistics provided by the school board, the proposed budget only allows for a per-pupil spending figure of $13,415 under current enrollment projections. That’s short of what schools officials consider the baseline for per-pupil spending — $13,535 — and does not include extra expenses like support services for English language learners or students with special needs.
With the city budget as tight as it is, the school district’s 10-year infrastructure plan may face even greater challenges. Graf said capital spending priorities reflect the realities the district faces, and the board used a “modernization” mindset to be more thoughtful in its decision-making.
Priorities for the board include completing existing construction projects; completing the design of Patrick Henry Elementary; beginning redesign studies to address capacity problems at James C. Polk Elementary and the T.C. Williams Minnie Howard campus; roofing George Washington Middle and Lyles Crouch Elementary; beginning outdoor play space improvements or redesigns at Matthew Maury, Mount Vernon and William Ramsay elementary schools; and making safety and security updates and repairs.
“If we were to address capacity and the health of the buildings all in one year, it would be wonderful for our city, but we’d break the bank.” Graf said. “We do have to be thoughtful, and that’s what modernization is, it’s a thoughtful approach.”
The item in the school district’s capital budget that caught the most flak from council was a $38 million figure attached to converting Patrick Henry Elementary to a pre-K through eighth grade school. City Councilor Paul Smedberg pushed for more details rationale behind the $38 million price tag.
“Is it the high end? I’m asking what the $38 million is for?” Smedberg asked.
Vice Chairman Chris Lewis said architectural and engineering reports on Patrick Henry are due in May and will provide estimates for three options: a complete demolition and reconstruction, building an addition to the existing building, or a hybrid of the two. The cost estimate, he said, was based off the construction of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.
Superintendent Alvin Crawley said the conversion would address some enrollment issues, but given projections for middle school growth, the pre-K through eighth school would not address the secondary needs and a third middle school still is needed.
The projected cost of Jefferson-Houston was budgeted at $36 million when it was approved in 2012, but by its opening last year, the final cost totaled $44.2 million. Smedberg continued to push Crawley on how capital projects are selected.
“Dr. Crawley, I have … concerns over the years of the [previous] administration of this whole area and … being able to trust figures that come forward,” Smedberg said. “It seemed to be a lack of focus of leadership. What has changed since you have taken over?”
Crawley said he had implemented a system that would look closely at projects and across departments to set realistic timelines and cost estimates. In addition, he said he made staff changes and was putting accountability measures in place.
City Councilor Tim Lovain said the board should pay careful attention to enrollment projections, and adjust facilities plans accordingly.
“It’s not at all certain exactly,” he said. “If you just assume constant growth you reach some conclusions, but we need to keep a very close eye on this.”
Smedberg said that while new buildings are appealing, he wanted to know if the school board was sufficiently evaluating competing needs and smaller modernization projects with full building overhauls.
“A recommendation could be building a school, but it could be just as good doing a major renovation and saving $10 or $12 million and coming back to council to allocate those funds for other types of things,” Smedberg said.
Graf said the board has been taking both fiscal health and capacity into consideration.
“We don’t want to get into the situation where we’re building another [Samuel] Tucker [Elementary] where on day one the place is full and we’re offsetting 250 kids, 150 annually, to other schools,” Graf said.
As city and schools officials looked into the future, Mayor Bill Euille said the two groups eventually will need to explore sharing some services.
“We can’t continue to operate and function the same way having a lot of separate operations that are very costly,” Euille said. “[Whether] it’s payroll processing, transit, transportation — we talked about your new bus expansion facility — IT and the maintenance of our buildings. I look over at [school board member] Pat Hennig. We started these conversations when we both didn’t have grey hair or white hair.
“It’s something that we seriously have to do. … Trying to close that gap means we’re going to have to do some really deep soul searching to get there.”