The Right Note: Arlington Public Schools’ Budget

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Mark KellyOur education record in Arlington is a pretty good one. According to the Washington Post, we spend the most per pupil in the region, and second place is not close. Our average teacher salary ranks first. Our average class size is below the regional average. And, our average SAT scores rank third.

Arlington is proud to do it again next year for $18,558. That is the cost per pupil trumpeted by both the Arlington School Board and Arlington County Board as they passed the FY 2016 budgets.

Except $21,814 is the actual total cost per pupil. You arrive at the more accurate figure when you divide the projected enrollment of 25,626 by the total spending of $555.9 million.

$3,256 is the difference when you subtract what we are told our cost per pupil is with what it actually costs taxpayers for every child in the public schools. $83.4 million is the total amount of spending reflected by the difference of the reported per pupil cost and the actual per pupil cost.

Yes, Arlington reports the numbers this way because that’s the way everyone else does it — in accordance with some bureaucratically defined formula. Whether everyone else does it that way or not, should not be the point. The average person who takes a county-generated press releases at face value almost certainly believes it represents the total cost per pupil.

Would Arlingtonians demand more spending accountability from the School Board based on the use of a higher number? That is an open question.

There are certainly questions being raised about when and under what conditions every APS student will receive a notebook or laptop. Who gets them and when? How much will it cost? What safeguards will be in place? How will we equip teachers to carry out the digital learning plans?

What of the rest of the APS budget? Class sizes will remain the same and staff will receive raises. Washington-Lee, which rolled in trailers when it opened because it was not built big enough initially, will soon undergo a costly expansion.

And, the School Board allocated $67,000 to hire temporary help to communicate better with the community. Certainly, it is not on the same scale as the PR campaign employed by the County Board to try and save the trolley. But, shouldn’t the School Board already be able to communicate the rationale for the policies they vote to implement?

Bottom line, we could probably better spend the $67,000 in the classroom.

Arlingtonians certainly support their schools and deserve maximum transparency and accountability in return.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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