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School Board Avoids Class Size Increases in New Budget, But Warns of Trouble Ahead

by Alex Koma May 4, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

The Arlington School Board managed to avoid class size increases in its new budget, but the county’s worsening financial outlook has school leaders warning that future spending plans could include additional painful cuts.

The School Board voted unanimously Thursday to approve a roughly $637 million budget for fiscal year 2019, though board members expressed plenty of trepidation about the document.

“This was a very difficult year, and I think we’re going to have a few more difficult years,” said board member Tannia Talento. “The things we were able to save this year, we may not be able to save next year. We just need to be aware of that reality.”

Just as the County Board has been wrestling with challenges associated with a shrinking commercial tax base and ballooning Metro expenses, Arlington Public Schools officials have been forced to start doing some belt tightening as well. Superintendent Patrick Murphy proposed about $10 million in spending cuts in the budget he sent to the board, targeting areas like employee benefits and planned hires, and he warned that the rapid pace of student enrollment is likely to only make budget pressures more acute in the coming years.

However, the School Board was able to push off the impact of this year’s budget squeeze in some select areas, thanks to an extra $3.2 million in one-time funding the County Board opted to send to the school system as it finalized its budget on April 22.

The School Board decided Thursday to use the bulk of that money — roughly $2.6 million — to delay a bump in class sizes across every grade level for one year, saving 28 jobs from the chopping block in the process. Murphy had originally proposed upping average elementary school class sizes by one student each, with average increases of .75 pupils in each middle school class and .5 students in high school classes.

But using that money to avoid class size increases was not without controversy; it passed on a 3-2 vote, with Vice Chair Reid Goldstein and board member Monique O’Grady dissenting. While neither board member expressed any great satisfaction with those votes, both stressed that they’d rather see the school system save up now to prepare for choppy financial waters ahead.

“I don’t like taking cuts, but the reality is we must do so,” Goldstein said. “Tightening the belt means things are not going to be perfect all the way around.”

Yet board members like Chair Barbara Kanninen argued that keeping class sizes small is “a hallmark of our school system,” justifying the extra spending. Furthermore, she reasoned that the board could use the county’s one-time funding to support such a change because APS wouldn’t be adding any new positions with the money, merely supporting existing employees.

That sort of thinking informed the board’s decision to spend another $305,000 in county money to fund the hiring of several new social workers and psychologists — Murphy originally proposed adding one part-time employee and one full timer, but the board unanimously voted to increase that to five full-time positions in total.

Talento originally proposed using about $855,000 to hire a total of 11 new social workers and psychologists instead, but some board members bristled at the prospect of using quite so much one-time money to support employees that APS will have to pay for years to come.

Kanninen also proposed using $250,000 to let APS offer one week of paid parental leave to its employees — the school system has offered two weeks of that leave to staffers for the last two years, but Murphy proposed axing that benefit in its entirety. But Kanninen was the only board member to support that motion, leaving it out of the budget.

While board members were pleased that the spending plan will still support many of their priorities — including roughly $12 million in employee pay raises — they also stressed that it was far from ideal.

“In the same way the county’s growing, our budget needs to grow,” said board member Nancy Van Doren. “I fully expect to be requesting more money for our budget next year.”

Photo via Arlington Public Schools

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