Arlington, VA

The coronavirus pandemic will mean big changes to the Arlington Public Schools budget.

Interim Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Cintia Johnson presented her revised budget to the School Board via video conference last night, detailing plans to slash $54 million from what was once an ambitious budget calling for $725.8 million in expenditures.

The new budget assumes a drop in projected revenue from $698 million to $660.6 million. To balance the budget, Johnson proposes eliminating all across-the-board pay raises, nixing other planned expenditure increases, increasing class sizes at all grade levels by one, furloughing all staff for one day next spring, and using $14 million in reserve funds.

The school system’s reserves would drop from $26.5 million to $12 million, and would eventually need to be replenished in future budgets.

“We are using a significant amount of reserve funds to balance the budget, but we believe this is the best option for APS in order to preserve our team, maintain our high quality staff, and continue our tradition of excellence,” Johnson said. “”This is an extremely unusual year that has brought increased budget pressures. as a result, we have had to make some very tough decisions.”

Johnson presented two scenarios to the Board for employee pay raises, but said neither was viable for achieving a balanced budget.

The budget also calls for eliminating the Foreign Language in Elementary School program, eliminating tuition reimbursement for staff for the year, cancelling six planned school bus purchases, delaying purchases of furniture and technology for APS administration headquarters, delaying a planned athletic field renovation at Kenmore Middle School, and delaying a number of hires.

“We have preserved, as much as possible, our quality programs and services,” Johnson told the School Board last night.

The budget includes enough staffing to absorb a 4% increase in student enrollment — projected to be 29,142 at the beginning of the school year — and increased funding for English learners and students with special needs, as mandated by a settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

APS’ cost per pupil, currently the highest among D.C. area suburbs, would drop from $19,921 to $19,624.

Johnson says there are some unknowns that may yet affect the budget, including whether APS might see any boost in funding from federal coronavirus stimulus programs like the CARES Act, or reduced funding from the state. She said the furlough day should be scheduled as late in the next school year as possible, so that it can be eliminated should additional funding become available.

After a two work sessions and public hearings, the School Board is set to adopt the final Fiscal Year 2021 budget on Thursday, May 7.

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No raises, few areas of additional spending and a couple of delayed openings.

That’s the summary of County Manager Mark Schwartz’s revised budget proposal, as announced by Arlington County on Monday afternoon.

The new Fiscal Year 2021 proposed budget “focuses on core essential services of government, retaining the existing workforce and proactively responding to the pandemic,” the county said in a press release.

The revision comes as Arlington expects a projected $56 million drop in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, dealing Schwartz’s formerly “good news budget” a $34 million reduction while tacking on $21.6 million to Arlington Public Schools’ already sizable budget gap.

Local and state governments have been bracing for big reductions in revenue as the pandemic causes sales tax, meals tax, hotel tax and other types of revenue to plummet.

Schwartz’s new budget proposal allocates more than $10 million for relief efforts, including food assistance, help for local businesses and nonprofits, and employee assistance. County services in the new budget are mostly kept as the current budget year’s levels, and proposed county employee pay increases have been nixed, per the county press release.

Other proposed, money-saving efforts including delaying the openings of the newly-built Lubber Run Community Center and Long Bridge Park aquatics center, as previously suggested by County Board Chair Libby Garvey.

The County Board will now hold a joint budget and tax rate hearing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 23. Final budget adoption is scheduled for Thursday, April 30.

After advertising no tax rate increase, the County Board can only keep the current rate steady or lower it. The average homeowner is still likely to pay more in property taxes, however, given a rise in property assessments.

The full county press release is below.

As the County faces the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, County Manager Mark Schwartz presented the Arlington County Board with a revised FY 2021 Proposed Budget that focuses on core essential services of government, retaining the existing workforce and proactively responding to the pandemic.

County staff estimates a nearly $56 million drop in anticipated revenue for the FY 2021 budget–$34.0 million on the County side and $21.6 million for Arlington Public Schools.

“What was unthinkable two months ago is now in front of us,” Schwartz said. “Businesses have laid off staff, residents have lost jobs, schools have closed and only the most essential functions continue.”

In February, Schwartz presented a budget that added back targeted investments in areas that were falling behind after two years of reductions. Now, his revised budget maintains only the current levels of service, removes all salary increases, places many projects on hold, uses funds from the Stabilization Reserve, and removes almost every addition proposed only a few weeks ago.

The budget delays the opening of the Lubber Run Community Center and the Long Bridge Park Fitness & Aquatics Center until FY 2022.

The County Manager’s revised budget also responds to the pandemic. It provides funding to meet projected demand in direct life/safety services to our residents, such as housing grants, permanent supportive housing, and identifies $2.7 million for emergency needs, such as food assistance. An additional $7.5 million is set aside for potential assistance to small businesses and nonprofits, service delivery recovery and employee support, and possible additional shortfalls in revenue.

The County Board now will take up the Manager’s proposal and is expected to vote on the amended budget on Thursday, April 30. There will be a public hearing on the new FY 2021 budget proposal, followed immediately by a tax hearing, on Thursday, April 23, at 7:00 p.m.

Before the pandemic, the County Board voted to advertise a tax rate of $1.013 per $100 of assessed value for Calendar Year 2020 ($1.026 including stormwater). By law, the Board can adopt a tax rate no higher than the advertised rate.

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Morning Notes

Local Coronavirus Test Results Delayed — “When we talked to an Arlington man Tuesday, it was approaching 11 days since he’d been tested for COVID-19, and he still hadn’t received his results. ‘It’s just so frustrating,’ Daniel Miller told us via FaceTime. ‘I just want my results back. I want to be able to know what I have. I want to know if this is COVID or not.'” [WJLA]

APS to Rethink Budget Proposal — “Arlington School Board members have given Superintendent Cintia Johnson direction to start battening the hatches as the school system – like the county, state and nation – move into rough economic waters. ‘We’re going to have to look at potential tough budget times’ and ‘figure out a way to move forward,’ School Board Vice Chairman Monique O’Grady said.” [InsideNova]

Window Smashed at Rhodeside Grill — Someone smashed one of the large front windows at Rhodeside Grill in Rosslyn, which is currently shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. [Twitter]

Local Restaurant Owner Still Optimistic — The outbreak has been devastating for the restaurant business, but some local owners are making the most of it. Amir Mostafavi, founder of the South Block juice chain, is giving away free fruit to kids in need during the crisis. “We’re going to come out of this as stronger people, as stronger businesses,” Mostafavi told NBC 4. [LinkedIn]

Bayou Bakery Closing Its Takeout Service — “Having persevered for three weeks through the limitations of the current public health situation, Arlington’s Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery is temporarily closing its doors to ‘Call-In, Carry Out’ service on April 1, 2020. Chef/owner David Guas will continue his mission to provide the community and underserved kids and families with free, grab-and-go meals.” [Press Release]

Shuttle Bus Company Helps Collect Food — “FLARE, an amenity electric shuttle service, along with the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, collected and delivered over 800 lbs. of food donations from the Crystal City area for the Arlington Food Assistance Center on Saturday, March 21, and announced that food collection efforts will continue in the Crystal City area starting today.” [Press Release]

Photo courtesy Allison Bredbenner

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Like other nearby localities, Arlington has entered the community transmission phase of coronavirus outbreak.

As of noon Monday, the number of known coronavirus cases in Arlington again increased — to 34 cases from 26 cases on Sunday and 17 on Friday, according to the Virginia Dept. of Health. Some of those are suspected cases of community transmission, which cannot be traced back to travel abroad or contact with a person known to be infected.

At the Arlington County Board meeting on Saturday, Arlington County Health Director Dr. Reuben Varghese provided an update on the county’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have cases in Arlington, as well as in the region… there is now evidence for local transmission, community transmission,” said Varghese. “[These are] cases where you can’t find a known source related to travel… The cases in Georgetown were a known cause, but we now have evidence without being able to find a known source of transmission.”

Varghese said that this was completely expected and the work being done now on social distancing will help reduce the spread.

“With that evidence of community spread in Northern Virginia we want to remind everyone: infectious diseases don’t respect boundaries and all localities should be vigilant in helping to slow the spread of the virus,” Varghese said.

Varghese advised people to wash their hands frequently and to cover their faces when coughing, complimenting someone else in the room mid-speech with having “good technique” as they started to cough.

Statewide in Virginia, there are now 254 known coronavirus cases, including 38 hospitalizations and 6 deaths. Nearly 3,700 people have been tested, according to the state health department. Fairfax County now has the highest number of cases among individual jurisdictions in the Commonwealth: 43.

Meanwhile, the county is scrapping its previous budget.

“We’re doing the best to get a new budget proposal by April 1,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said. “It will be a very small document with increased demands in certain areas and less revenue.”

Schwartz said that, as the county did after the 9/11 terror attacks, all capital projects will be reprioritized to divert resources to essential needs. Budget work sessions have been temporarily suspended.

“We expect occupancy tax and meals tax to be low,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that occupancy rates at Arlington hotels are currently around 2-3% with one closing that week.

Image via Arlington County

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Arlington County may have opted to keep the tax rate steady, or even cut it, but the Arlington Public Schools (APS) says it still needs to find a way to bridge at least a portion of a $27.6 million budget gap.

In total, Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson’s budget comes out to $725.9 million in expenditures and only $698.4 million in revenue, assuming the transfer from the county to the school system remains as proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Budget gaps are nothing new for APS, but the difference has often been covered by tax hikes that the off the table for this year. The familiar pattern prompted some cynicism at a budget work session last night from School Board member Nancy Van Doren, who said she’d been through the budget dance six times and hoped that maybe this year would be different.

“Maybe I’ve just done this too many times but I know the process we’re about to go through,” Van Doren said. “We have a greater need than the money allocated to us by the county. They have proposed their tax rate and it’s not going to be enough for us to cover our budget. Therefore we’re going to them and asking them for more money. They’re going to decide how much they give us and we’re going to adjust our budget.”

“That will involve a lot of community angst,” she added.

Van Doren proposed, at some point in the budget process, meeting with the County Board formally before the School Board prepares its final budget.

“There’s a script to this that we all go through, and it’s exhausting,” Van Doren said. “I’m wondering if we might write a letter to the county and say ‘we have a 27 million shortfall, how much are you going to help us with’ so we can cut to the chase and find out what we have to close.”

She faces a similar veteran of budget gaps, County Manager Mark Schwartz, who in his budget presentation to the County Board said he fully expected APS to request more funding, but that the $17.7 million more than last year that the school is receiving should be enough to account for the increase in students.

Johnson’s budget presentation cited a 4% increase in enrollment and rising costs for students with special needs, transportation services, substitutes, ADA accommodations and health insurance as factors in the gap. Enrollment growth accounted for $12.8 million, but that was not the largest new cost in the budget.

The largest cost increase in Johnson’s budget is a step increase for school employees and a 1.6% cost of living adjustment, totaling to $18 million. There are also $10.3 million in one-time and ongoing costs for opening five new schools and programs, according to a press release from APS.

The budget also proposes 84 new special education and special needs positions throughout the school system — at an annual cost of $6.56 million — and around 35 new full-time English Learner teachers, at an annual cost of $3.89 million, to comply with a settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

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Arlington County has a new budget and a higher real estate tax rate.

The County Board unanimously approved a $1.4 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020, avoiding the most controversial of its proposed cuts while hiking the taxes paid by the average homeowner to $9,023, an increase of $281.

Arlington property owners will now pay an additional two cents for every $100 in assessed property value, on top of increasing property values. Most of the additional revenue will go to Arlington Public Schools, which is set to receive $532.3 million in local tax dollars, which will help it also avoid some proposed, controversial cuts.

County Board members characterized the budget as fiscal prudence, despite the tax hike. They noted that it includes $4.8 million in county budget reductions, trimming 27.5 full-time staff positions deemed to be no longer necessary due to declines in demand for certain services.

The cuts range from a 5 percent reduction in funding for community radio and public access TV operator Arlington Independent Media to cutting Arlington Transit bus service on a route that records as few as 3 riders per hour.

“I would think about this not as government getting smaller, but as government getting smarter,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

Board member Erik Gutshall said county leaders went over the budget with a “fine tooth comb” and the result is a budget without “an ounce of fat.”

“We certainly would prefer not to raise rates at all but this is a budget we can be proud of as thoughtful, progressive, and sound,” said Board member Matt de Ferranti.

While the Board restored a pair of arts positions — cuts that would have affected theater programs in the county — it asked the County Manager to study those positions and the county’s arts programs in general prior to the next annual budget. Vice Chair Libby Garvey said that libraries should also be studied.

“[I’m] hoping in this next year… we take kind of a holistic view of libraries, and what we want libraries to be in our community, what role we want them to play,” she said.

There was hopeful talk on the dais about the effects of Amazon’s new Arlington presence.

“Happily the commercial vacancy rate is getting a little better,” Garvey said, adding that “obviously Amazon helps that a lot.”

In Arlington, roughly half of county revenue comes from commercial real estate and businesses.

The FY 2020 budget helps to shape a community “that a company like Amazon wants to come to,” said Gutshall. “And when they come they help our commercial [real estate] assessments that did the most of the work in bridging the gap this year.”

The full Arlington County press release on the budget’s passage, after the jump.

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The Arlington School Board has advanced a $669,314,705 million proposed budget — a budget that features a gap of over $6 million.

The Board voted 4-0 to approve its proposal for the school system’s next fiscal year budget. One member, Barbara Kanninen, abstained. Final budget approval is set for May.

Voting stretched late into Thursday night as members weighed five amendments detailing how funds could be cut to reduce the $6.7 million budget shortfall.

Members approved four amendments that together shaved $1,163,330 off the budget by proposing to:

  • Eliminate an anonymous reporting hotline
  • Eliminate APS HR’s budget for computer replacements
  • Eliminate two Technology Support Positions, one Foreign Language in elementary schools position, one full time HR position, and two assistant director positions in assessment and transportation
  • Reduce funding for postage, evaluations, and clerical substitutes
  • Reduce printed report cards
  • Reduce Foreign Languages at Key School
  • Reduce travel reimbursements, and increase student parking fees

Another approved reduction was for the fund that provides employee service awards and special events — hours after the School Board celebrated 168 teachers in front of the dais for their decades of work in APS.

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A pair of local arts groups are planning a rally outside county government headquarters Tuesday to protest proposed budget cuts to some Arlington arts programs.

The rally, dubbed “A Celebration of the Arts in Arlington,” is set to take place at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2, outside of the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd) in Courthouse.

Organizers Encore Stage & Studio and Embracing Arlington Arts are protesting what the latter group says are “draconian cuts” of about $500,000 to arts programs including:

  • Closure of the Scene Shop
  • Closure of the Costume Lab
  • Elimination of the Facilities Manager
  • Elimination, in one year, of the Facilities Technology Services Director
  • Elimination of the Audio Production Specialist
  • Elimination of Supervisor of the After-Hours Building Engineers position
  • Elimination of the Mobile Stage
  • A $70,000 (1/3 of the total grant budget) cut to arts grant budget

A petition against the cuts, which would mostly affect theatrical productions, has gathered more than 2,750 signatures.

The rally is planned to coincide with the County Board’s public budget hearing at 7 p.m.

“Many of Arlington’s performing arts groups will be showcasing their talents and expressing their opposition to the proposed arts budget cuts,” says a press release about the rally before the hearing. “The community is invited to join the festivities and share stories about the positive impact of the arts in Arlington.”

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Morning Notes

School Board Budget Quarrel — “Despite being blasted by colleagues for circumventing established procedures and potentially poisoning a well of goodwill, a majority of School Board members on March 28 voted to direct their chairman to tell County Board members the school system couldn’t take any further budget cuts.” [InsideNova]

Arlington Tech Succeeding in Engaging Girls — The Arlington Tech high school program “applicant pool for the 2019-20 school year has an almost equal breakdown when it comes to gender. As far as reflecting the county’s racial diversity, this public school program, which accepts students based on a blind lottery, is within a few percentage points.” [Technically DC]

Online Signup to Speak at Budget Meetings — Arlington County’s public meetings on the county budget and tax rate will be held on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Those who want to speak at the meetings can register to do so until 5 p.m. the day before the meeting. [Arlington County, Arlington County]

New Name for Nauck Elementary School — Drew Model School in Nauck is being renamed “Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School” after the Arlington School board voted last week to accept a naming committee’s recommendation. [Arlington Public Schools]

ACFD Weekend Incidents — Arlington County firefighters responded to a fire on an apartment balcony in Courthouse and a chimney fire in a house near Westover over the weekend. [Twitter, Twitter]

Photo courtesy of Craig Fingar

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Outdoor Lab, an educational facility that serves Arlington students, is fighting for funding after Arlington’s superintendent proposed cutting the outdoor science program out of next year’s budget.

About 10,000 APS students visit the 225-acre site in Fauquier County each year for lessons on biology, earth science, and astronomy, per its website. The Lab is owned by the non-profit Arlington Outdoor Education Association and also provides students some overnight and summer programs.

Now program staff are urging parents to contact officials on their behalf because Superintendent Patrick Murphy has proposed eliminating funding for Lab staff and bus rides to the program as part of the $8.9 million in cuts he floated to balance his $662.7 million budget proposal for the school’s next fiscal year.

APS spokesman Frank Bellavia gave the same response to ARLnow’s request for comment as he did for the debate last week over the superintendent cutting crew for the county’s high schools.

“The Superintendent and APS does not want to take any of the proposed budget reductions. To present a proposed budget that was balanced, however, $8.9 million in reductions had to be proposed,” Bellavia said in the statement, adding that “instructional programs” were prioritized.

“You know the Outdoor Lab is a special place for seeing science come to life, taking a hike in the woods, and sleeping in a tent under the stars,” wrote Arlington Outdoor Education Association President Todd Parker in his plea to parents to contact the County and School Board on the program’s behalf.

“The Lab is a unique resource for students in Arlington Public Schools,” Parker wrote. “We need your voice to help ensure the Lab continues to serve thousands of Arlington students next school year.”

Eliminating funding for the Lab would save APS about $700,000, according to Murphy’s budget proposal.

The $8.9 million in total budget reductions proposed by the superintendent can be reduced if the county adds more money to the APS budget during deliberations next month.

The facility celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 by raising $84,000 for capital improvements, exceeding its $50,000 fundraising goal. The Outdoor Lab has previously said APS’ rising enrollment is squeezing its capacity.

The superintendent’s full comment about the budget cut proposal is below.

The Superintendent and APS does not want to take any of the proposed budget reductions.  To present a proposed budget that was balanced, however, $8.9 million in reductions had to be proposed.  Staff focused on preserving our instructional programs and the critical support provided to schools, students and families, but many difficult decisions had to be made about possible reductions.  We continue to hope that the APS budget will be fully funded by Arlington County Government through funding strategies including an increase in the tax rate.

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Morning Notes

Amazon Talking to Unions — “Amazon.com Inc., JBG Smith Properties Inc. and union representatives in the D.C. region have met a few times in the last six weeks to discuss benefits and wages for the workers who will build HQ2 in Pentagon City.” [Washington Business Journal]

Changes Coming to Arlandria? — “For decades, developers have eyed Arlandria, the working-class neighborhood near Reagan National Airport where a transplanted Hispanic culture flourishes amid Northern Virginia’s upscale condominiums… Now, crime is down, the economy is humming, and Amazon is moving in virtually next door, with plans to hire thousands of well-paid workers, who’ll be in search of easy commutes.” [Washington Post]

Local Strategist Sued by U.S. Rep Raising Funds — Political strategist and Arlington resident Liz Mair is being sued by Rep. Devin Nunes, in a bizarre defamation suit that also names Twitter and two parody Twitter accounts as defendants. Mair is raising money for her legal defense. [Donorbox, Twitter]

Op-Ed: Nix Arlington Arts Cuts — “If the 2020 budget that Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz submitted to the County Board is implemented, it will prove to be devastating to the Arlington arts community.” [Washington Post]

Arlingtonians Help Save Bird — A pair of Arlington residents, including former Arlington Outdoor Lab executive director Neil Heinekamp, “came to the rescue of a distressed bird” found on a nature trail in The Villages, Florida.  [InsideNova]

Kitchen Fire in N. Arlington High Rise — “Units called to 4300 blk of Lorcom Lane for oven fire on 6th floor of a residential high rise. Fire is out with minor extension to surrounding cabinets. Crews working to ventilate smoke and scaling back response.” [Twitter]

Nearby: Halal Butchery Controversy Continues — “Letter-writer compares proposed halal butchery in Alexandria to *slave auctions*: this is the same brutality…’ Even by the standards of Alexandria micro-controversies, the rhetoric around this thing is remarkable.” [Alexandria Times, Twitter]

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