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Superintendent’s Budget Funds Enrollment Growth, Salary Hike, New Tech Program

While a school budget battle rages in Fairfax County, Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy quietly rolled out his budget proposal last night.

Murphy’s budget, which he presented at Thursday’s School Board meeting, calls for a 3.9 percent spending increase over the 2015-2016 school budget. That compares to the 6 percent increase sought by Fairfax County Public Schools, which is also experience growing pains from increased student enrollment.

The proposed, $579.4 million budget includes $10.8 million to handle a projected 4.5 percent growth in student enrollment next school year, $9.6 million for a staff “step increase” in salary, an extra $3 million for infrastructure maintenance and $750,000 for the launch of Arlington Tech, a new environment-and-engineering-focused technical education program at the Arlington Career Center.

Also included: $4.4 million for various instructional and student support initiatives, like new social studies textbooks, an additional substance abuse counselor and three next elementary-level gifted program teachers.

Most of the budget — 59.3 percent — goes to teacher and staff salaries. Murphy said the school system found some “efficiencies” this year by changing some of its salary and health care options for new employees.

APS is expecting enrollment to grow by 1,135 students next school year — it currently stands just above 25,000 — and to exceed 30,000 by 2021. The money in Murphy’s proposed budget would fund new teachers, new instructional materials, two new school buses and includes $2.6 million for new trailer classrooms, called “relocatables” by APS.

Class sizes would remain the same under the proposed budget. The cost per pupil will increase, from $18,616 this year to $18,893.

There is no increase in budget this year for the APS’ 1:1 technology initiative, which provides laptops for each high school student and iPads for students at lower grade levels starting in second grade. The technology rollout will be complete in 2017. From FY 2018-2020, the instructional technology budget is expected to rise a cumulative $9.3 million, due mostly to enrollment growth and the renewal of APS’ technology lease agreement.

Murphy’s budget this year projects a $1.9 million deficit between revenues and expenditures, despite the use of $11.3 million in one-time reserve funds. Thanks to prudent budgeting, administrators said, APS currently has $65.2 million across its various reserve funds.

Debt service amounts to 8.1 percent of the proposed budget — $46.7 million. That’s a slight, 3 percent increase over the current fiscal year. Administrators said that even though APS continues to take on new debt to build and renovate schools, it’s benefiting from the retirement of older debt. APS will begin its capital improvement planning process in June. By law, debt service may not exceed 10 percent of the APS budget.

While declining to make direct comparisons to Fairfax County, Murphy thanked Arlington County leaders for being “committed to maintaining excellence” at APS and credited the county’s diversified tax base — which is evenly split between commercial and residential — for helping to keep the school systems’ finances stable.

“Here in Arlington we believe in public education,” he said. “We have the support of the entire community.”

In terms of budgeting, “the strength of our tax base here and how we manage our money is, I think, our biggest strength,” said Murphy.

“We are very fortunate to live in a community that is committed to providing students with an exceptional public education,” Murphy said in a statement. “As enrollment continues to rise significantly, we want to maintain the assets that have made us an outstanding school division, including dedicated and highly-qualified teachers with small class sizes, healthy and safe spaces that nurture student learning; addressing the individual needs of the whole child; and providing multiple pathways for students to achieve success.”

Following public hearings, the School Board will reveal its proposed budget in April and adopt its final budget in May.

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