APS highlights spending on staff, security and student health in proposed budget for next school year

School Board member David Priddy holds a copy of the proposed 2023-24 budget for Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán has proposed an $803.3 million budget — an increase of more than 7% over the current budget.

And the messaging around the budget picks up on some themes, including the mental and physical health of students and more support for teachers, which arose from major events this school year, including a series of student deaths and drug overdoses.

“This budget reflects our commitment to supporting continued success for every APS student through investments in both academic and mental health support,” Durán said in a statement.

“We are also continuing our focus on compensation for our teachers and staff to ensure we remain a highly competitive employer at a vital time for public schools, while further strengthening division-wide safety and security measures,” he added.

Durán writes that the budget process for the 2023-2024 school year began with “a large deficit” after APS used some $41 million — partially from reserves — last year to avoid significant reductions.

“This deficit was also driven by the need to provide staff with a step increase as well as a cost of living adjustment next year in order to partially mitigate rising inflation,” he said.

Like last year, APS is once more drawing from its well of reserves, spending $41.2 million in addition to the county transfer of $607.6 million. This transfer, $23 million larger than last year, comprises three-quarters of the school system’s revenue.

Both enrollment and cost-per-pupil are on the rise, per the budget. Next year, APS projects enrollment to increase by 710 students, according to a six-page budget explainer, while per-pupil expenditures to reach $24,560.

APS enrollment projections compared to cost-per-pupil (via APS)

It also projects a rising number of students receiving special education services and learning English.

Population projections for students with disabilities and English language learners (via APS)

When it comes to school staff, the budget includes $25.6 million for step increases for eligible employees and a 3% cost of living adjustment for all employees. The average pay increase will be a little over 5% for teachers, administrators and professionals and more than 6% for support staff.

“Anything less than a step plus 6% doesn’t beat the current cost of inflation,” said June Prakash, the president of the Arlington Education Association, the local teachers union, in a statement. “How can you expect us to give 100% of ourselves to APS when many employees must have second (or even third) jobs to make ends meet? Our staff will continue to struggle with housing, food, and furthering the education of their own children.”

She said employees are still paid less than colleagues in surrounding districts.

Teacher salaries in Arlington and neighboring Virginia jurisdictions, per Virginia Education Association data (created by ARLnow)

In response to staffing shortages, Durán proposes $2 million for a Summer School bonus for teachers and assistants and increased substitute teacher pay rates and substitute coverage pay for teachers. APS has taken this approach before.

The substitute teacher shortage is not new nor unique to Arlington. About 77% of school systems nationwide report substitute shortages, as teachers retire or quit in higher numbers, a trend some media outlets and research have linked to the pandemic.

To address student well-being, APS has $14.5 million budgeted for:

  • Middle and high school intervention school counselors
  • Deans of Students to address student behaviors at the high school level
  • Additional substance abuse counselors
  • School health supervisor
  • Stipends for designated Social-Emotional Learning staff at every school

In addition to recent deaths and drug overdoses, the positions respond to reports of problematic student behavior, including fights and verbal threats to teachers.

“I’ve heard more than once this year that there are students with serious behavior problems that are returned to the classroom — there is much inconsistency in this,” Prakash previously told ARLnow. “There was a recent incident where a middle school student made a few direct threats to a counselor, who reported it to her supervisors at Syphax, and they simply stated that the student ‘didn’t mean it.'”

School Board candidate Angelo Cocchiaro called for more substance abuse counselors, but praised the school system for investing more in student-facing positions than additional staff for APS headquarters.

The budget includes more math interventionists and coaches and more translators to assist families with limited English proficiency, who rely on a handful of translators to interpret important documents, including grades.

School Board candidate Miranda Turner says the new hires should be more focused on those that can directly address learning loss.

“There is VERY little additional included to address learning loss,” she wrote in a tweet. “Four new interventionists in math, bringing our total to 10 — not close to the 34 the Math department asked for… [plus] more incentive pay for summer school. Not seeing much else.”

The third priority, improving operational efficiency, includes security measures like $8.8 million for a threat assessment specialist, additional school safety coordinators, security cameras and additional safety and security resources, among other technology upgrades pertaining to safety.

This specialist would “accommodate more in-depth training opportunities for administrators and student services staff,” according to an email sent to Key School parents last week. The email outlined the steps APS is taking in response to a written, racist threat of gun violence at Key School, which parents said was botched by delayed, vague messaging and by the decision to place the principal on leave.

The focus on security also comes after a lockdown at Wakefield High School over a trespassing incident involving an individual who might have been armed.

School Board candidate Erin Freas-Smith, while she supporting the raises for teachers and school-based instructional support staff, says APS needs to invest more in its buildings to prevent, for instance, a repeat of the closures at Taylor Elementary School due to a lack of heat and power.

One lingering concern for Turner is how the budget will be balanced in the years to come.

“We’re looking at a shortfall of 9.3% by [School Year] 2026-27,” she said. “Using reserves wisely has to be a part of this year’s consideration. Can we identify savings to go with our increased spending?”

The School Board is set to adopt the proposed budget on March 30 and act on the final budget on May 11.