School board passes FY2021 budget

School board passes FY2021 budget

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The Alexandria City School Board unanimously adopted its revised fiscal year 2021 budget during a virtual meeting on June 5.

Both the FY2021 budget and FY2021-2030 capital improvement program budget for Alexandria City Public Schools required significant reductions due to the ongoing economic constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the school board eliminated raises for most ACPS staff, the approved budget includes pay scale increases for principals and senior leadership.

The approved FY2021 operating budget is $288,319,565, which will be funded with a total city appropriation of $234,037,296 and other financing sources.

The school board also approved a FY2021-2030 CIP budget of about $532 million, with about $95 million dedicated to FY2021. In order to accommodate a necessary CIP reduction, $103.7 million for the high school project has been deferred to FY2022 and FY2023.

In April, City Manager Mark Jinks proposed reducing the school operating transfer by $7.4 million – from his previous proposal of $241.44 million to $234.04 million – to help offset the city’s estimated $56.4 million revenue shortfall in FY2021.

This reduction was equivalent to the employee compensation improvement plan ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., had proposed in his initial FY2021 budget proposal.

Dr. Gregory Hutchings Ed.D. (Photo Credit: Susan Hale Thomas/ACPS)

Before the pandemic hit city and school coffers, the proposed FY2021 budget included salary enhancements, including an average 2.63 percent step increase for the majority of ACPS staff, a one-time bonus for the 12.5 percent of employees who were not eligible for a step increase, a $250 “stay” bonus for transportation employees and market rate adjustments for specific employee groups to bring salaries in line with market averages.

With reduced funding from the city, a projected $4 million decrease in state funding and a $0.3 million decrease in local revenue, ACPS faced an $11.7 million operating fund gap.

To close the gap, Hutchings and ACPS budget staff recommended instituting a hiring freeze for non-class- room positions, a 5 percent reduction in non-personnel costs, a reduction in new staff positions and cuts to the employee compensation plan.

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The approved FY2021 budget eliminated the proposed employee step increases, as well as the one-time bonus for employees who were ineligible for a step increase. The budget also includes a decrease in ACPS’ contribution to the supplemental retirement fund. However, the budget maintains market rate pay increases for certain employee groups, including principals and senior leadership.

Several school systems in the region also made budget cuts to employee compensation in light of the pandemic. Arlington Public Schools eliminated all salary increases and Fairfax County Public Schools eliminated step increases and market rate adjustments for employees.

In an attempt to supplement teachers’ paychecks, school board members asked ACPS staff to produce options for providing teachers with “a modest one-time payment,” according to a May 29 school board memo from Dominic Turner, ACPS’ chief financial officer. The school board ultimately approved a one-time $158 payment to all employees not receiving a market rate adjustment.

The approved budget maintains MRAs for principals, central office chiefs – such as the chief academic officer, chief financial officer and chief operating officer – transportation staff and paraprofessionals. The positions receiving MRAs were informed by a 2019 compensation study, and the adjustments will take place steadily over the course of a multi-year plan, Hutchings said.

“They are not competitive salaries right now. They are at a disadvantage and the goal is to try to get them to a competitive salary level over the next three to five years,” Hutchings said at the May 8 school board meeting.

Some school board members were conflicted about the cuts to employee compensation, given the market rate adjustments for certain groups.

“Speaking for myself, I have a problem with the market rate approach to salaries because the market consistently undervalues low-wage workers,” School Board Member Michelle Rief said in an email.

School board member Michelle Rief.

Some teachers said that the inclusion of MRAs is an admirable attempt to bring all employee groups up to competitive levels of compensation.

“… We seem to be in a time of division in America and I hope that folks will see the personnel component of the operating budget in terms of overall competitiveness and fairness for all employee groups,” Mark Eaton, a journalism teacher at T.C. Williams High School, said in an email. “It can be tempting to compare budget outcomes for one group of employees against another in a single budget cycle. I hope this temptation can be resisted.”

The MRAs for transportation staff and paraprofessionals will take place over three years, resulting in a 4.64 percent MRA for the former and 4.5 percent MRA for the latter. Principals and chiefs would receive MRAs over the course of five years, 2.9 percent for principals and 3.4 percent for chiefs.

Elementary and middle school principals’ salaries are about 6 and 5 percent below market average, respectively, according to the study. The bottom step for elementary school principals would increase from $94,032 to $96,759, while the top step would increase from $145,582 to $149,803. For middle school principals, the bottom step would be adjusted from $98,731 to $101,594 and the top step from $152,858 to $157,291.

For chiefs, the MRA would increase the bottom step from $135,240 to $139,838 and the top step from $187,260 to $193,627.

Transportation staff – bus drivers, bus monitors and mechanics – and paraprofessionals are paid on an hourly basis, but the three year plan for MRAs would increase those pay scales as well. Bus drivers will see their bottom step increase from $18.48 to $19.34 and their top step jump from $30.55 to $31.97.

Paraprofessionals at rank IV had the lowest pay range when compared to the market average. Their bottom step – $19.04 per hour – is about 19 percent lower than the market average of $23.62, according to the compensation study. The MRA will increase the bottom step for high level paraprofessionals to $19.90, still below the market average, and their top step from $31.48 to $32.90 per hour.

In total, the cost of the MRAs for all employee groups will be around $417,100, with the majority – $279,500 – being put toward 125 transportation staff members. About $75,100 will go to MRAs for ACPS’ 14 principals, about $53,900 will go toward seven chiefs and the remaining $8,600 will go to five paraprofessionals at level IV, according to Turner.

“I think it’s just really important for the community to understand how these budget cuts are really impacting our staff in a big way,” Rief said.

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