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by Bridget Reed Morawski March 27, 2018 at 10:45 am 0

Some Arlington Public Schools parents are unhappy with proposed budget cuts that would lead to fewer weekly world language instructional hours.

The proposed 2019 APS budget includes a number of reductions that aim to resolve the “$16 million in reductions this year in the face of our continuing growing enrollment needs,” wrote APS assistant superintendent Linda Erdos in an email to ARLnow.

The budget proposal includes the following FLES, or Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools, teacher reductions:

€The planning factor formula for FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools) teachers is changed. This results in a reduction of 11.5 FLES teacher positions as follows: a 0.50 reduction each at Abington, Arlington Science Focus, Arlington Traditional, Ashlawn, Barrett, Drew, Carlin Springs, Henry, Jamestown, Long Branch, McKinley, Discovery, Nottingham, Oakridge, Randolph, Taylor and Tuckahoe and a 1.0 reduction each at Glebe, Claremont, and Key. The new planning factor allocates a 0.5 teacher up to 100 students, a 1.0 teacher for 101 to 215 students, a 1.5 teacher for 216 to 340 students, a 2.0 teacher for 341 to 470 students, 2.5 teachers for 471 to 610 students, and 3.0 teachers for 611 to 770 students, and 3.5 teachers for 771 to 930 students.

Instructional time would be reduced alongside the staff reductions.

“Staff will work out the model and schedules with principals so it’s equitable for all elementary schools,” wrote Erdos.

One Arlington parent, Kelly Alexis, emailed those she referred to as “Friends of FLES,” imploring that they take time to support the program by contacting School Board members themselves and asking for more information as to how this cut was agreed upon.

Alexis also sent the following email to School Board members regarding the potential reduction:

Dear School Board Members,

I am certain that all of you share the goal of providing equitable and quality education to our elementary school children, though I do not see a unified vision.

Looking at the proposed cuts that include FLES, Arts and more, and hearing School Board members question the need for such programs, it is clear to me there is no unified vision or focus on instruction for our youngest learners and as a whole for APS. When the need for FLES is questioned even though APS has set as a strategic goal to have APS students proficient in two languages upon graduation we have an instructional management issue.

More cuts in instruction will not solve this problem, ignoring the need for ES students to have exposure to World Language will not improve test scores.

What is the School Board’s instructional vision? The Superintendents proposed budget’s FY19 Elementary School priorities are disturbing and miss the “whole child”, social and emotional well being and World Language completely, how does that even happen?* As a county we can easily put ourselves in the position to pit program against program though it will take a School Board with vision and fortitude to stick with its own strategic goals meeting the essential and basic needs of our students and ensuring that program are delivered with consistency and equity.

APS or School Board members must be able to explain to the community how they have evaluated every proposed budget addition or budget cut against that vision, and how they have arrived at each of their decisions in the context of that vision. You cannot continue to cut staff and access to language instruction without communicating how these actions “refine” and I assume improve (how?) World Language delivery as stated in the budget.

We cannot throw out or reduce programs such as FLES due to arbitrary questions without looking at the facts. Putting FLES against recess is ridiculous and short sighted, why not provide both? If we are going to throw out programs due to inconsistent feedback and program delivery then 1:1 should be at the top of the list. Lets review the data and look at the best practies set forth by ACTFL and see how we measure up to meet the needs of our World Language goals.

We must provide APS students appropriate resources to ensure safe learning environments, strong social emotional supports and instruction that is developmentally appropriate and evidence based. We know early exposure to language provides tremendous learning benefits, its proven with years of study. World Language acquisition is a vital skill and early exposure is essential.

We know that many APS programs are not perfect, though I feel APS is not trying hard enough and this budget process is showing true colors on priorities – SOL’s and devices in young hands prevail while humanities and Art take a back seat.

Our youngest learners deserve better and APS owes us an explanation NOW, before you cut staff and vital instructional programs through this budget process, of what your vision is in regards to FLES, 1:1 and instruction overall that does not involve an SOL test score.

Thank you for your time,
Kelly Alexis

The School Board has one remaining work session to discuss and make changes to the proposed budget, on Tuesday, April 3. The School Board is set to adopt the proposed budget at the School Board meeting on Thursday, April 5.

File photo

by Bridget Reed Morawski February 23, 2018 at 9:45 am 0

Class sizes at Arlington Public Schools may increase as the school system continues to see rising enrollment.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy proposed a fiscal year 2019 budget of $636.7 million at Thursday’s School Board meeting. That’s an increase of 3.8 percent from the 2018 budget, lower than the 5.4 percent increase from 2017 in to 2018. Murphy said APS is facing the same budget pressures as the county, which is projecting only a modest increase in tax revenue.

Class sizes will increase slightly under the proposed school budget, with grades four through five seeing the largest increase of an estimated one student per class. Middle schools will see a .75 pupil increase, and high schoolers will see a .5 student increase.

The cost per pupil, as proposed, is down $105, dropping from $19,340 to $19,235.

The budget will again include a step increase in salary for all eligible employees and a further raise for employees, like assistants and bus drivers, who aren’t already earning market rate salaries.

Compensation step increases will cost $9.7 million in 2019, and “salary adjustments” will cost $2.2 million.

The majority of the budget, 77.7 percent, will go toward salaries and benefits. The next largest expenditure will be debt service, at 9.1 percent, as APS continues to build and expand schools to keep up with enrollment. The cost of materials and supplies will take up 3.4 percent of the budget.

Murphy emphasized that as Arlington Public Schools is on pace to grow to 30,000 students by 2021, “we’ve got to begin to think about a sustainable future.”

The schools are projected to add 2,200 children per class year starting in 2019. In 2019, enrollment growth related expenses, like staffing and supplies, will cost $5.82 million. Several new schools on targeted to open for the fall 2019 semester, according to Murphy.

“Many of the decisions that we have made are not my preference, are not where we want to be,” Murphy said before his presentation to the School Board, noting his desire to balance the needs of an increased enrollment with employee compensation and continued funding for 2017 and 2018 initiatives.

“These were tough decisions that we needed to make.”

Projected expenditures initially exceeded projected revenue by $16.5 million. Additional revenue and use of reserve funds scraped together $6.5 million, and expenditure reductions and service changes — like changes in elementary school foreign language programming — brought in an additional $10 million to address the shortfall.

APS also found other creative ways to address its budget gap, including joining an Apple program that will buy back used iPads and laptops, generating about $1 million in revenue.

Among other ways to weigh in on the budget, residents can email Arlington Public Schools ([email protected]) with feedback. The School Board will be holding budget work sessions and hearings in February and March, ahead of its final budget adoption.

by ARLnow.com February 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm 3,103 0

APS superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy gives his FY 2015 budget briefing(Updated at 9:00 p.m.) The proposed FY 2015 Arlington Public Schools budget funds an increase in enrollment without increasing class sizes, but includes cuts to alternative high school programs.

The $539.4 million budget — a 3.1 percent year-over-year increase — also provides a cost-of-living salary increase for APS teachers, launches a new early literacy initiative and funds an APS-provided take-home iPad for every 2nd grader and a Google Chromebook for every 6th grader.

APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy presented his proposed budget to the Arlington School Board Thursday night. It’s the beginning of a process that will culminate with the School Board’s final budget adoption on May 8.

Murphy’s budget includes $7.3 million in cuts and “efficiencies.” APS expects to save $1.6 million by merging the Langston High School continuation program into Arlington Mill High School (located at the Arlington Career Center) and by reducing day classes offered to students over the age of 22.

“I understand the commitment of the community to provide this option for adults,” Murphy said. “But in these challenging budget times… one of my concerns remain core services for children who are school-aged and on the K-12 continuum.”

Murphy also proposes saving $800,000 via cuts to special education assistants and $1.1 million by eliminating library assistants from elementary schools. Another $200,000 will be saved by reducing non-mandated elementary school field trips.

Because the school system is growing, Murphy says APS employees impacted by the cuts will be transferred to other roles instead of being laid off.

A chart showing APS class sizes, illustrating increased enrollment at lower grade levelsAPS expects school enrollment to increase by about 800 students in the coming school year, from 23,316 to 24,153. That will cost APS $9.8 million for the hiring of teachers, acquisition of textbooks and materials, and for relocatable classrooms, furniture and technology. Another $300,000 will go to hiring four additional bus drivers and a route coordinator. Murphy’s budget keeps class sizes the same, but the cost per pupil will increase, from $18,678 to $19,244.

The proposed budget includes the beginning of a number of significant initiatives.

Starting in the fall, every 2nd grader will be issued an Apple iPad and every 6th grader will be issued a Google Chromebook. All 2,150 iPads and 1,650 Chromebooks will be internet-accessible at school (via WiFi) and students will be able to take them home. Officials say the computers will be leased and the cost in FY 2015 will be $200,000. Dubbed the 1:1 Initiative, APS expects to gradually expand the program to every grade level, with 3rd and 7th grades next in line.

Fiscal Year 2015 will be the first year of a three-year goal to eliminate early release days and to spread foreign language programs (FLES) to all elementary schools. Two of the seven schools with early release days will have the early release eliminated under Murphy’s budget, thus providing additional instruction time for FLES. It’s yet to be determined which two schools will be chosen.

A third major initiative in Murphy’s budget is early literacy. Murphy hopes to boost reading levels for those in two grade categories — PreK-2 and 3-6 — via investments in technology, summer reading programs and professional development for teachers.

“I feel a real responsibility that we need to build in that area,” Murphy said of the literacy initiative.

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by ARLnow.com April 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm 0

Arlington Public Schools logoThe new Arlington Public Schools proposed budget includes less money for minor construction and major maintenance, after the Arlington County Board approved a smaller tax increase than was sought by the School Board.

The School Board had asked for an additional 0.5 cent tax increase dedicated to school funding, in addition to the County Manager’s proposed 3.2 cent tax increase. In the end, the County Board approved a 3.5 cent increase, only 0.3 cents more than the manager’s proposal — and that increase will be split by the county and the school system.

With an earlier version of its proposed budget now facing a shortfall of $1.4 million, the School Board cut about $600,000 from the minor construction/major maintenance fund, and another $600,000 from the school system’s reserve fund. Even with the cuts, however, the maintenance and construction fund and the reserve fund are both set to receive more than $7 million apiece in the budget.

Arlington County school busesIn a move expected to make parents happy, the new budget includes more funding for transportation.

Last week Arlington Public School parents were informed in a letter that all currently enrolled students who were eligible for bus service this year will remain eligible in the upcoming 2013-14 school year.

In order to maintain bus service while the school system adds nearly 1,000 additional students, APS is expected to add 10 new full-time positions to its transportation services department. The transportation budget will increase by about $1.75 million in Fiscal Year 2014, compared to FY 2013. All told, the FY 2014 proposed budget for transportation is $16.1 million.

The transportation budget boost comes after hundreds of parents protested changes to the busing policy at the beginning of this school year. The changes — intended to allow the school system to stop adding buses and drivers to its fleet — backfired when impacted parents complained bitterly about their children no longer being allowed to ride the bus to and from school.

The Arlington School Board is holding a public budget work session tonight (April 23) starting at 6:00 p.m. The School Board is expected to approve a final budget at its meeting on May 2.

by ARLnow.com February 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm 5,749 86 Comments

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy’s proposed FY 2013 budget includes an across-the-board increase in maximum class sizes and a small raise for all APS employees.

At $493.8 million, the proposed budget is a 3.9 percent increase over FY 2012. The increase reflects, among other things, a 2 percent increase in the APS salary scales — Dr. Murphy says the increase is a reflection of the “cost of competing” with other Northern Virginia school systems for quality teachers and staff — and 3.9 percent growth in student enrollment.

Student enrollment is projected to jump by 857 students, from 21,841 to 22,698. APS calculates that growing enrollment will cost $1.8 million for the purchase of 16 new relocatable classrooms and $2.2 million in additional staffing costs. Though the overall budget is flat in terms of per-student spending, the official “per pupil” cost — as calculated under a set formula that differs from just looking at the overall budget — will actually increase from $18,047 to $18,400.

Helping to offset otherwise higher costs of enrollment is Dr. Murphy’s proposal to increase the maximum allowable class size for all K-12 classes by one student. Though he admits that it’s “a tough decision” that is likely to be of concern to many parents, Dr. Murphy is quick to point out that the increase in the maximum class size will not automatically increase the size of every class. Instead, it will primarily affect classes that were already at the maximum.

Murphy also noted that the current proposal to transition middle schools to block scheduling is not “not designed at all” to impact class sizes.

In addition to the salary increase, the new budget factors in investments in professional learning for teachers, the purchase of new science textbooks, and the purchase of new classroom and enterprise technology. APS is also planning on spending more this year as a result of lost federal grants, the need for more reserve funds, and rising costs associated with paying off the debt incurred for recently-built schools.

Dr. Murphy listed a number of “unfunded instructional needs” that the budget does not address. Included in that list of unmet goals is an expansion of foreign language classes in elementary schools, an expansion of Virginia Preschool Initiative and Montessori classes, a salary “step increase” for teachers, and additional textbook purchases.

“This budget is a fiscally responsible proposal,” Dr. Murphy said in a statement. “Even though this budget does not fund all of our needs, I have no doubt that we will do what APS always does. We will be guided by our strategic plan, our high expectations for students and our commitment to providing students with everything they need to succeed in school and in life.”

In additional to several budget work sessions in March, a public hearing on the school budget will be held on April 12. The final budget adoption by the school board is scheduled for April 26.

by Peter Rousselot November 30, 2017 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In the last segment of its November 28 work session, the School Board discussed a proposed “Framework” for its forthcoming FY 2019-28 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). APS will begin formal planning for its new CIP in January.

Discussion

Given competing demands on Arlington County’s budget, APS’ leadership must adopt a much more cost-conscious approach at every stage of its capital budgeting processes. New enrollment growth projections are now expected in mid-December.

There have been some glimmers of hope.

At an Board meeting earlier this year, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy acknowledged that he was “hearing from the community some concern about the CIP,” and that for future new school construction projects “there will be three flavors of budgets: Low, Medium and High.” (See video between 1:37:30 and 1:40:25.)

Murphy’s new approach needs to be very closely scrutinized to be sure that the 3 flavors of budgets are not “high, higher, and highest.”

Another glimmer of hope arises from the decision by the School Board’s internal auditor to examine how APS’ school construction costs compare to those in other jurisdictions. But, the auditor’s work product also will need close scrutiny, as the Sun-Gazette recently editorialized:

We’re hopeful that the auditor’s report on construction provides a true window into reality, not a whitewashed look by focusing on a narrow cadre of school districts with similar spending mentalities.

There are several things we must do together as a community to ensure that APS:

  • does provide the best fiscally-prudent new seats for our students, but
  • does not continue to spend money on capital projects “like the spigot would never run dry”

First, the County Board needs to be clear regarding how much capital spending will be available to APS in each of the ten years in the next CIP.

Second, as construction costs rise, School Board members must become much more proactive with their own staff by insisting upon cost-consciousness and new strategies in building construction and renovation.

Third, we need reformed civic engagement processes in which the public can weigh in early enough concerning a manageable number of budget-driving alternative options. We cannot continue with processes in which citizens or staff are enabled to add one feature after another, never being told what the costs of doing so are nor that APS can afford X or Y but not both.

Recently, a very savvy schools’ activist shared with me her kitchen-table solution for the problems with APS’ past approach to school construction and renovation:

For our home renovation, my husband and I decided on our total budget for the renovation FIRST, then as we were designing the house with the architect, we kept insisting on getting some high-level price estimates so we could decide if we wanted to continue going down [that] path.  

With APS, they do have some high-level planning with the CIP to set some general parameters for budget, but it’s my perception that it’s been the norm to involve the public through various engagement processes, like Building Level Planning Committees, completely disassociating it with any cost estimates/total budget, and of course, very few people are making cost-conscious suggestions when it’s treated as Wish Lists with open checkbooks.  

Conclusion

In the past, School Board members too frequently have rationalized high construction and renovation costs.

Now they need a new attitude: we can do more for less money.

by Heather Mongilio July 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm 0

APS app homepage

Despite budget cuts, Arlington Public Schools may get to keep its mobile app after all.

The school system originally planned to cut the app on July 1, in order to shrink its budget. The app cost about $12,000 a year to maintain, said Linda Erdos, APS assistant superintendent.

The app, which launched two years ago, allowed parents to view messages from APS’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts and gave them quick links to APS sites like the Family Access Center, MySchool Bucks, the APS directory and lunch menus.

“The app was intended for those who prefer the convenience of receiving and checking information and notifications on their mobile device through a single application,” Erdos said.

APS was ready to stop the app when fate intervened: Parent Link, the company that built the app, was bought by Blackboard, a company that provides an online platform for assignments, grades and communication between students and teachers. Blackboard, APS recently found out, was willing to give them a sweet deal.

“Because we are already a customer with Blackboard for School Talk and these other educational web-based solutions, Blackboard has offered to include the app into our current contract for APS School Talk as an added feature at no cost to APS,” Erdos said.

APS is still waiting confirmation from Blackboard before announcing that the app will continue, Erdos said.

If the contract does go through, the app will not look any different.

“Blackboard won’t do anything different with the app,” she said. “Based on what they have proposed, since Blackboard now owns Parent Link, they will continue to support the availability of our app, and will support APS staff if changes are needed.”

Photo via screenshot

by Alex Koma May 17, 2018 at 10:45 am 0

Arlington Public Schools could soon free up some space in one of its parking lots by shifting employees to a garage next to Barcroft Park.

The County Board is set to approve a deal with APS this weekend to let school bus drivers park their personal vehicles on the top floor of the Barcroft garage at 4200 S. Four Mile Run Drive.

The school system is looking to make the change because space at the Arlington County Trades Center lot in Shirlington (2770 S. Taylor Street) is rapidly becoming limited, according to a report prepared by county staff. Rising enrollment in APS has led not only to overcrowded classrooms, but a persistent push by the county to add more buses, which has squeezed its transportation facilities.

So long as the Board signs off on the deal, APS employees would be able to park in the 50 spaces on the top floor of the garage from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday starting on July 1, and the arrangement would last for at least the next five years.

APS buses will no be moving from the Trades Center lot, so the school system also plans to run a shuttle out to the Barcroft garage, which sits roughly a mile away from the center.

County staff don’t expect this change will have any impact on demand for spaces in the garage, which also serves the Barcroft Sports and Fitness Center, as they believe the space is currently “underutilized by the public for parking for recreational activities” during the day on weekdays. The full garage will still be open to the public past 5 p.m. each day.

The Board will vote on the deal at its meeting Saturday (May 19). The matter is slated for the Board’s consent agenda, so it’s likely to pass without debate.

Photo via Google Maps

by Bridget Reed Morawski May 7, 2018 at 9:45 am 0

Arlington Public Schools will not offer high school students beginner’s level Japanese and German classes this fall, and some parents and students are speaking out about it.

Much of the loudest advocacy has been geared toward supporting up the Japanese classes. Public comments after a world languages presentation at last week’s School Board meeting (May 3) focused on the ways that the Japanese classes have made an impact on students.

“It’s not just a language, it’s not just something people take because they want to get the advanced diploma,” said one student, Juliana Logan. “It’s not an easy language, we take it because we care and we want to learn more about it.”

Another student, Liam Mason, started a Change.org petition that, as of May 4 (Friday), had garnered more than 1,800 signatures over the past week. The petition isn’t clear as to how many of the signers are Arlington residents.

Mason spoke of his strong desire to learn the language, calling the news of the phase out “devastating.”

The demand for Japanese and German courses has shrunk in recent years, according to Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia.

In 2015-2016, 65 students signed up for German and 54 signed up for Japanese. By the next school year, 2016-2017, those numbers dropped to 42 and 37 students respectively.

Though the numbers rose by two students per language in 2017-2018, Bellavia said that the numbers for 2018-2019 German and Japanese enrollment were low. There were 33 requests for German, or six less than in 2017-2018, and 41 requests for Japanese.

Bellavia added in an email to ARLnow that the school system “often [has] attrition from level one to level two… that means that there are even smaller levels at the advanced language level.”

“Therefore, we have decided to use our resources for courses that have a greater level of interest throughout APS,” he said.

Supporters have noted that the reason for the relatively low requests, compared to much more popular languages like Spanish or French (with a respective 2,326 and 673 enrolled students in the last school year), is due to school counselors advising students to switch to Chinese and the lack of a Japanese and German option at the middle school level.

Mason described how many students tend to stick with their middle school language as they advance grade levels, and that German and Japanese are thus dealt an unfair hand during enrollment.

“Counselors have told children to disenroll and it’s not offered in middle school, [yet] numbers are increasing by a surprising margin,” said Mason. His comments continued, stating that he believed that the anticipated larger class sizes would add more students to the program.

According to Bellavia, the advice from counselors came after it was determined that there would be insufficient enrollment for the 2018-2019 school year:

APS counselors do not advocate for one world language course over another. Students were given the same opportunity to select Japanese and German as they were all world languages within APS.  Each year, students select those courses they are interested in taking. Once all of the course requests are approved, school staff review the requests and then determine the number of sections needed for each course.  Each year, there may be some courses for which there is not enough student interest to run the course. Once it was determined there was not enough interest to run Japanese and German for the 2018-19 school year with the current model, counselors advised students that another option would need to be selected.

We are in the process of determining other potential options for offering these languages to those students who are interested.

A committee, Save Japanese in Arlington Public Schools, has been formed by the parents and students, seeking a one year deferment of the decision to allow for community input.

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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.

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by Alex Koma May 3, 2018 at 10:45 am 0

(Updated at noon) The price tag for a new elementary school could soon get a bit larger, in an effort to make the Thomas Jefferson Middle School more accessible for people with disabilities.

Arlington Public Schools officials are asking the School Board to approve an extra $250,000 in spending at Alice West Fleet Elementary School, which is scheduled to open in September 2019, for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) changes at the adjacent middle school.

The board will get its first presentation on that request at its meeting tonight, as staff seek the green light to bump up the “guaranteed maximum price” for the nearly $47 million project. The changes at the middle school are being incorporated into the Fleet project so that they can be “more effectively coordinated and can be completed prior to the 2018-19 School Year.”

APS officials plan to make accessibility adjustments at two of the middle school’s three entrances.

Though accessibility upgrades are already in the larger APS budget, the size of the change to the Fleet budget means APS will need the board’s approval first. Voting on the matter is expected within a few weeks.

The board is set to approve its fiscal year 2019 budget tonight. The nearly $637 million spending plan is set to fund pay raises for most school employees, but does call for slightly larger class sizes at both the elementary and middle school levels.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this article mistakenly reported that the changes were planned for the elementary school. Photo courtesy Arlington Public Schools.

by ARLnow.com April 23, 2018 at 6:35 pm 0

The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously passed a $1.276 billion balanced budget that includes a number of fee increases but no real estate tax rate hike.

The FY 2019 budget notably restores $70,000 in funding for Arlington Independent Media — County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed cutting about $90,000 in county funds for the community TV and radio broadcaster — after AIM collected more than 1,300 online petition signatures against the cut. The Board also boosted first responder pay, particularly starting pay which police and firefighter associations say is low and hurting recruitment, by $1.6 million above the manager’s recommendation, which already included a pay boost.

Funding the increased spending is the reallocation of $2.5 million from proposed renovations to the county government headquarters in Courthouse and the freezing of 16 vacant public safety positions.

Per the manager’s recommendations, the budget also increases parking meter rates and extends metered hours until 8 p.m., while increasing utility taxes, household waste fees and various departmental fees.

“The Board largely accepted the $8.4 million in spending reductions, $6.6 million in fee and tax increases and $5.5 million in funding realignments recommended by the County Manager in his proposed budget,” notes a county press release, below. County Board Chair Katie Cristol called the adopted budget “sustainably progressive.”

County funding for Arlington Public Schools will top the $500 million mark, as the school system continues to face pressures from enrollment growth and the opening of new schools. Metro, meanwhile, will receive a 3 percent increase in funding, receiving $73.1 million from the county’s coffers and state transit aid earmarked for Arlington.

In addition to AIM and first responders, the Board nixed the following cuts proposed by Schwartz, according to the markup record:

  • $620,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund
  • $365,000 for Lee Highway planning and $25,000 for the Lee Highway Alliance
  • $40,000 for the Legal Aid Justice Center, which serves immigrants
  • $200,000 for a body scanner at the county jail
  • $50,000 for the Arlington County Fair
  • $20,000 for community shredding events
  • $40,000 for the Arlington Neighborhood College program
  • $184,000 for a youth mental health therapist

Among the proposed cuts not restored: the elimination of the printed Citizen newsletter, the elimination of two ART bus routes, the elimination of Arlington’s poet laureate and a $555,000 cut to the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy residential rebate program.

The latter drew some pushback from Board members.

“The cuts that we’re doing this year to AIRE — nobody’s going to die, there’s nothing fundamentally that any of us are going to lose sleep over or should be ashamed of,” said Erik Gutshall. “But while people don’t die, our planet is dying, its ability to sustain our life at least.”

“In future budgets, while we’re going to continue to make tough choices, we’re not going to let our commitment to the environment fall behind,” he added.

Despite the disagreements, the Board was unanimous in its vote on the budget, which Board members praised for prioritizing key areas while avoiding a tax rate increase. (The tax burden on the average homeowner will still increase by $296.)

“Despite the reductions, there are investments our community can be proud of in this budget,” Cristol said in a statement. “We prioritized funding our public schools, especially teachers, and investing in our workforce, especially public safety personnel. We preserved our social safety net and sustained funding for affordable housing and core services.”

“I see this budget really as a transition from the way we’ve been doing things to the way we’ll need to do things going forward,” said Libby Garvey. “This community has pretty much gotten used to having as much money as we need to do what we want to do. This year it’s starting to change. It’s likely to be even harder in the future with the stresses we have moving forward. I think it’s a good transition to what we’ll be doing moving forward.”

“What I think we’ve done is really weatherize our fiscal house for the inclement weather ahead,” echoed John Vihstadt. “It’s only going to get tougher as we move forward, but we took some important steps here that, while not greeted uniformly favorably, were necessary to be done.”

Arlington Independent Media and public safety associations, meanwhile, expressed gratitude for the additional funding.

Arlington County’s press release about the budget, after the jump.

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by Peter Rousselot April 12, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In two columns last fall, I asked: Does County government commit too much surplus revenue for spending?

Progress on unallocated closeout surplus

In his proposed FY 2019 budget, County Manager Mark Schwartz notes that he has whittled down the level of surplus funds available at closeout.

“[T]he amount of funds that are ‘discretionary’ for allocation at closeout have been reduced annually ($11.1 million in FY 2017, compared to $17.8 million in FY 2016 and $21.8 million in FY 2015). Of those closeout funds that have been made available, immediate spending has been limited to commitments already made by the Board or for emergency needs,” the budget wrote.

This is a positive step.

More budget reforms

However, of these closeout funds, the majority remaining after allocating the APS revenue-sharing portion is automatically allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written policy explaining how, when and why these other “commitments” were made.

The County Board essentially has allowed the manager to allocate/spend the remaining closeout funds without adequate opportunities for residents to weigh in on millions of dollars of spending.

The Civic Federation has asked that a fair and reasonable portion of surplus funds be plowed back into the coming-fiscal-year budget to reduce the need for a tax-rate increase. County officials, however, claim that best practices dictate that surplus funds be used only for “one-time” purposes since the county cannot rely on future surpluses to meet ongoing needs.

But there is no written, publicly available policy clearly defining what a “one-time” expenditure is, and this “one-time” money is often spent on recurring needs.

What experts say

At a County Board work session last spring, Public Financial Management, Inc. (PFM) described how other jurisdictions manage their fund balance accounts.

PFM noted that Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have a 10 percent operating/contingency reserve, twice Arlington’s level.

PFM also observed that:

  • Arlington’s General Fund reserve policy levels are below the median level and among the lowest in the triple-A group (Arlington’s bond-rating peer group).
  • FY 2016 is the second consecutive year of decline in the General Fund balance ratio, and this could begin to concern Moody’s, if it becomes a trend.

More County Board oversight

Too often, committed and allocated funds are established in the fund balance with substantial cash accumulating over time, apparently with little or no monitoring of the reasonableness of the balances. New York State’s Local Government Management Guide on Reserve Funds warns against this.

“Reserve funds should not be merely a ‘parking lot’ for excess cash or fund balances,” the guide wrote. 

The County Board should answer questions like these:

  • Has the financial purpose served by each reserve fund been identified and published?
  • Has a written reserve fund policy been developed and published?
  • Has the Board reviewed all reserve funds currently established, and determined if the balances in each are reasonable?

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by Peter Rousselot April 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

In last week’s column, I discussed a helpful new report on APS Future Facilities Needs prepared by the Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs.

The new report makes a compelling case that APS must pivot to a new way of thinking and decision making about capital projects. One commenter offered the following observation, “Yes of course but what is the ‘new way’? Some specifics would be nice.”

Today’s column offers some specifics.

Fiscal responsibility & long-range planning

Every future facilities decision should be made with fiscal responsibility and long-range planning as primary factors. The County and APS should collaborate to develop financial projections out to 2035 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case, optimistic case(s), pessimistic case(s).

The results of those projections, together with the major assumptions underlying them, should be published and shared for discussion with the community.

County & APS collaboration on site selection

The County needs to work with APS to find some sites for some new schools, starting with the next elementary in the new 2018 APS Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

The County should adopt a land acquisition program to acquire acreage for school sites many years before the new schools would need to open. The County & APS should appoint a new task force, comprised of qualified, independent real estate professionals, to assist APS in negotiating for school space in vacant office space.

County-wide focus on locating new seats

Every decision on where to locate new seats should be made with a full understanding of the impacts of that decision on all of Arlington — not just the impacts on the immediately-proximate neighborhood.

Every community needs to be prepared to deal with some more intensified use of current buildings and sites. Congestion will grow inside and outside our schools. Every community will need to shoulder part of the burden, although the details will look different in each case.

APS & County resident-engagement

We must cut down on the average time it takes (currently up to 5 years) to get a new school on line. We also must introduce cost considerations into every stage of our engagement processes.

We need reformed civic engagement processes in which the public can weigh in early enough concerning a manageable number of budget-driving alternative options. We cannot continue with processes in which residents or staff are enabled to add one feature after another, never being told what the costs of doing so are nor that APS can afford X or Y but not both.

New CIP must include plans for enrollment growth beyond 2028

Last week’s column discussed the compelling evidence for future enrollment growth well beyond 2028. We won’t have enough capital funds or land (or money for land) to build up to 8 more schools beyond 2028 and service the debt in our operating budget. We need different (non-building) solutions to accommodate such further growth.

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by Peter Rousselot March 29, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

A helpful new Future Facilities Needs Report (“Future Facilities report”) from the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (“FAC”) makes a compelling case for new approaches to school facilities planning.

This new report was first presented to the School Board at its March 22 meeting.

Better seamless collaboration between APS and the Arlington County government is critical.

Longer-term school facilities planning, 2029-2035

As explained further in the new report, the best population and enrollment estimates available to APS and Arlington County demonstrate that APS will have significant needs for additional new seats and new schools beyond the conclusion of the planning horizon of APS’ new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), i.e., from 2029-2035.

If APS student enrollment reaches any of these levels, these are the number of additional new schools that may be required (over and above current and planned capacity):

As of today, there are no plans regarding where these students will attend school.

We must engage now in longer-term planning to answer that question. The pressures of growing enrollment, budget restraints, limited land, space and bonding capacity mean it is no longer responsible to make these decisions in isolation from other decisions on where to locate county facilities.

APS Capital Improvement Plan, 2019-2028

The new CIP that APS now is preparing is intended to guide investments in new school facilities over the next ten years. Every decision APS makes on capital projects must examine both short-term needs and long-term implications. APS must address the needs for new seats in a way that provides the additional capacity on time and on budget.

On March 22, FAC Chair Stacy Snyder summarized the FAC’s views regarding the new CIP:

The projections, timing and seat needs we have identified are as follows:

  • 725 new elementary school seats in 2025 or 2026
  • A need for additional middle school capacity in 2022, 2023 or 2024
  • 500-600 high school seats in 2021 and an additional 700-800 in 2023, 2024 or 2025

We have not recently been in an environment in Arlington in which we haven’t been able to afford to build new schools exactly how we want them or to find a place for them. But, that is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

We should seize this opportunity to develop positive, new and innovative solutions so that before we reach a certain population size we are prepared, and have positive, cost conscious and forward thinking solutions in place.

Every decision must be made transparently in the context of understanding the impacts on APS’ overall seat needs, and how that decision fits within APS’ overall budget. It’s critical for APS to “show your work,” and make it clear to the community what APS’ financial and physical constraints are. Cost must be an important consideration at every stage.

Conclusion

APS must pivot to a new way of thinking and decision making about capital projects.

APS and the County Board must collaborate to develop a comprehensive and strategic long-range plan for land use and capital projects across the county.

Residents and taxpayers must participate in decisions that explicitly recognize the trade-offs and the impacts of APS’ proposals on the entire Arlington community.

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