Alexandria: Preparing for Next School Budget

Alexandria: Preparing for Next School Budget

Alexandria Public Schools staff meet with local community to discuss the future of the budget

At a public forum on the Alexandria City Public Schools’ (ACPS) Budget, parents and local citizens split into groups and were asked what programs were needed for the children. Most had several immediate answers. One parent came prepared with list of programs. But when the topic turned towards how to get the revenue for those programs, the room was a little more silent. The general consensus at more than one of the small groups was that it was a lot easier to identify the problems than it was to find solutions.

The public forum for the 2016 ACPS budget on Nov 12 gave the community a chance to interact with the school system’s leadership team. Dr. Alvin Crawley, superintendent of schools, began the evening by outlining the budgetary process. The next major stage in this cycle will be Crawley’s presentation of the proposed 2016-2025 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) budget on Dec 4. The School Board votes on whether or not to accept the budget on Jan 15, 2015, and then the approved budget is taken to the City Council Jan. 29.

“When we finish each budget, we have a short window of time before we start thinking about the next budget,” said Crawley. “This isn’t a seasonal activity; it is something that happens throughout the year.”

According to Stacey Johnson, chief financial officer for ACPS, the school’s 2015 operating budget is $235 million, a 3.3 percent increase over the 2014 operating budget of $227 million. ACPS also had an an additional $10.9 million from grants and special projects, a decline of 5.7 percent from $11.6 million. Eighty percent of the school’s total budget comes from the City of Alexandria. Johnson highlighted literacy and mathematics as two of the school system’s highest academic priorities. Additionally, Johnson said the schools are working to implement targeted intervention for “gap groups,” defined by the National Education Association (NEA) as student groups that scored below average on standardized testing.

“Test score gaps often lead to longer-term gaps,” reads the statement on the official NEA website, “including high school and college completion and the kinds of jobs students secure as adults.”

Parents and local citizens identified overcrowding as one of the major concerns that needs to be addressed. Between 2013 and 2014, school enrollment grew by 594 students, exceeding to projections of the Long Range Educational Facilities Planning Committee by 46 students, 7.7 percent of the new student population. Next year, ACPS expects enrollment to increase by more than 500 students, and will need an increase in facilities and teachers.

One of the upcoming projects to alleviate capacity is a feasibility study on Patrick Henry Elementary School. ACPS has three options: to demolish the old building and construct a new school that would include a middle school, redesigning the interior to eliminate the empty space, or something in between the two. If the building were torn down, ACPS Public Relations Specialist Helen Lloyd says the students at the school would likely be relocated to the Lee Recreation Center. The feasibility study for the new Patrick Henry school will be completed and presented to ACPS in April.

ACPS recently tore down Jefferson-Houston Elementary School and replaced it with school for Kindergarten through 8th grade. The school is currently projected to be 91 students under its maximum capacity of 447 students by the end of the 2014-2015 school year.

“The middle school is under capacity, the 8th grade is currently very small,” said Lloyd. Currently, the entire 8th grade consists of 15 students, each of whom opted into the new school. While Arlington has shifted it’s school boundaries to accommodate the construction of the new school, Lloyd says the School Board is not considering boundary changes. “By 2020, all classrooms will be filled to capacity at Jefferson-Houston.”

There are 2,284 budgeted employees in ACPS for the 2014-2015 fiscal school year and 2,339 budgeted employees for 2015-2016. Of those, the biggest increase is in licensed teachers: from 1,127 in the 2014-2015 budget to 1,167 in the 2015-2016 budget.

Increased pay for that staff was one of the primary needs identified by the parents and local citizens. During the 2014-2015 school year, ACPS did not provide any salary increases. The one other recurring problems noticed by the groups was the lack of science classroom facilities. Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, chief technology officer for ACPS and one of the moderators at a small table of parents and local citizens, laughed as she insisted to Crawley that she did not tell her group to say that.

The next part, where to cut in the budget or how to raise money, was a bit more difficult but no less necessary.

“Sometimes things aren’t working and we need to talk through that process,” said Johnson. “We know that we rely on our taxpayers, so every decision has to be a prudent one.”

Private-Public partnerships were the most brought up idea, followed by internal audits. Overall, many groups said that parent advocacy and more transparency from ACPS could make City Council more likely to meet the School Board’s budgetary requests. Cassandra Ford, a local resident, said the focus needed to have two fronts.

“Our group looked at revenue generating as well as cost savings,” said Ford. “The two go hand in hand.”