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School Budget Passed, Planetarium Saved

By a 5-0 vote, the Arlington school board passed a $442 million FY 2011 budget Thursday night which reduced spending but restored some items that had been on the chopping block.

Notably, funding for the David M. Brown Planetarium was partially restored. Originally set to be closed and converted into classroom space for Washington-Lee High School, the planetarium will now be staffed part-time.

Instead of serving K-5 students five days a week, starting this fall the planetarium will serve K-2 students two days a week. There will also be some flexibility to hire a an hourly worker to open the planetarium on weekends.

The Friends of the Planetarium, a group that sprung up to protest the planetarium’s proposed closure and amassed more than 3,250 Facebook fans, will now begin the process of raising more than $300,000 for necessary upgrades to the 40-year-old facility. That process is expected to take 12-18 months.

“It’s a long road ahead, but we have an inspired group of people who aren’t about to quit,” group organizer Raphael Perrino said. “We kept the planetarium open… now it’s time to upgrade it and keep it open for many generations to come.”

In another development, board members grilled school security officials over a proposed new security system.

An entry security system for visitors, which would require people to present an ID to get a visitor’s pass during class hours, was blasted by board member Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez, who said it could scare immigrant parents away.

“This is not Arizona!” Dr. Violand-Sanchez exclaimed, referring to the state’s controversial new immigration laws. Other board members expressed concern about the system limiting parent access to schools.

Superintendent Dr. Pat Murphy defended the plan, which also calls for the installation of video cameras and a card access system by December 2010.

“I want to clarify that our schools will be welcoming places for all parents,” Dr. Murphy said.

Other notes from Thursday night’s board meeting:

  • Spending per pupil will drop to $17,322, the lowest level since 2006 and more than $2,000 less than the FY 2009 level.
  • Funding restored for after-school sports and activities transportation.
  • Funding restored for school-based substitutes ans teacher Career Advancement Program.
  • A reserve fund of $10.5 million will be created for retirement and benefit liabilities.
  • One board member called the budget “conservative” and said the board resisted the temptation of restoring even more spending.
  • School enrollment is projected to increase by 849 students in the coming school year.
  • Class sizes will increase with a nearly across-the-board addition of one pupil per class.
  • More “relocatable” trailer classrooms will be brought in to deal with school overcrowding. And more computer labs will be converted into classrooms.
  • Administrators are considering moving Pre-K classes to other facilities. They’re also considering an expanded, staggered high school schedule.
  • There will be no compensation “step increase” for teachers this fall. A union representative said she hoped the board would consider a step increase next year.

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