Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

APS teachers, parents, students, and staff have responded heroically to the shock to their routines presented by the Governor’s decision to end classroom learning for the current academic year. Our community is very fortunate to have educational leaders who have created these full-time distance learning options until in-school instruction can resume.

However, for a variety of reasons — all of which were apparent prior to the coronavirus crisis — APS must transition to revised ways of delivering its educational services. APS’s existing instruction and construction models cannot be sustained long-term.

The Arlington County government also must step up right now and play a proactive role in helping APS plan this essential long-term transition.

Current instruction (operating budget)

On April 6, the County Manager released his revised FY 2021 operating budget, estimating that the revenue available to APS under its revenue-sharing agreement with the County will be $21.6 million lower than estimated in February. This leaves APS with a current $48.6 million operating budget deficit.

But, the balanced operating budget the County Board finally approved last year illustrates why APS’s current instructional model is fiscally unsustainable. In that pre-coronavirus budget year, APS received 75% of the revenue from a 2-cent tax rate increase even though APS currently is only entitled to 47% of locally generated tax revenues.

The County Board unsuccessfully tried to rationalize last year’s decision by pointing to those APS expenses attributable to opening new schools, implying that 2019 was a one-time thing. However, because of very large projected increases in APS enrollment throughout the next decade, APS will have to provide new seats for new students throughout that decade.

Based on last year’s APS enrollment projections, budget, tax rate, and real estate assessments, I explained why Arlington would have to raise its real estate tax rate by about 17 cents over 10 years simply to pay to educate the new students (6,000+) arriving solely due to enrollment growth.

Because APS enrollment is growing even more rapidly than Arlington’s overall population, that means more students per taxpayer, which means higher taxes if there are no significant changes in the ways in which APS operates its schools.

Future instruction

To facilitate review and comment by the entire community regarding various alternative ways to restructure APS’s instructional budget, both the County and APS should immediately release the 3-5-year operating budgets, underlying data, and assumptions each was using for internal purposes prior to the coronavirus crisis.

Current construction (capital budget)

Last fall, APS posted its Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP plan”). This plan presents APS’s best estimate of the new schools it will need over the next Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) time horizon. The next CIP is scheduled for adoption in July 2020. But the AFSAP plan still lacks specifics about exactly where many needed new school seats will be located.

A major problem the AFSAP plan exposes is the glacial pace of County and School Board members in shepherding to conclusion a long-term plan locating new school seats at specific sites — five years after the Community Facilities Study Group’s recommendations that such a plan be created. Why have the two boards dragged their feet?

Future construction

Successful long-term public facilities planning must follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), schools, parks, fire stations, stormwater and other public infrastructure investments required? Will we have such bond capacity under several alternative economic scenarios? As taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate other costs including housing. Are there one-time alternatives to bond financing, e.g., the County’s huge surplus cash reserves (pp. 37, 267) that should be used to make some of these investments?

APS also needs a school building design makeover, e.g., more building up not out, greater standardization, preserving more green space and mature trees.

Conclusion

The County and School Boards immediately must accelerate the development of transparent, long-term plans for fiscally sustainable APS operations after the coronavirus.

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