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Votes

County Approves Budget Deal With Schools

Vote sets guidelines for next school budget, may mean schools start new budget committee.

Work on next year’s school budget got an early start this weekend, as County Board members approved an open-ended tax revenue sharing agreement between Arlington schools and the county.

Based on this year’s agreement, the June 22 vote would give Arlington schools a 48.6 percent share of county tax revenues in future budget years. That ties school fortunes to county revenues, which are projected to increase 9 percent with assessments next year, if there is not cut in the county property tax rate. School enrollment, meanwhile, is projected to go from 18,800 students to just over 19,000 – a 1.5 percent increase.

But school board members and school staff say the motion only sets guidelines for future budgets. Arlington’s School Board will vote on the agreement at their Aug. 20 meeting.

The agreement is similar to deals between the two boards over the last two years, but represents a break from the traditional way the school board worked out its share of county funding. Prior to 2000, school board members would pass a budget, then present it to the county as a request for money.

But that system didn’t always work, and both county and school officials had discussed making changes in the past. "Both boards have talked about needing this in the summer," said Mary Hynes, school board chair. "When I first came on the school board, we used to get something in October called the budget guideline. It said, the school board gets x amount of money, but it wasn’t based on anything."

Under the new agreement, school staff will be able to use realistic parameters to create a budget for the 2003-04 school year, and into the future, said Barbara Favola, county board member. "It’s very different than asking the school board to create a budget without any fiscal parameters," she said.

The revenue-sharing agreement sets more realistic guidelines for school staff, who can look at county revenue projections to figure out about how much money they can spend next year. But it’s still open to renegotiation, said Sue Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance.

"If we need to make changes, we can do that. If anything comes up, we can negotiate," Robinson said. "The idea is, it’s written so it could be approved without spending the summer negotiating a whole new agreement. But it doesn’t bind anybody if it doesn’t work."

<b>AT THE COUNTY BOARD</b> meeting, Beth Wolffe was the lone critic of the agreement. Wolffe a member of the Civic Federation’s school budget committee and a school board candidate running against Hynes in the November election, said the revenue-sharing agreement represents both boards putting the school budget process on "auto pilot."

"If I were on the School Board, I would expect and be ready to come here with my four colleagues to defend our budget request," she said. To do otherwise, she said, "spares the school board from having to justify their budget decision, and it spares this board from having to make the tough fiscal decisions we elect you to make."

"I couldn’t disagree with her more," said Hynes. County Board members "still have to have confidence that we’re bringing them something sensible," she added.

School Board member Dave Foster agreed: the school board still has to justify its budget, justify its spending plans to Arlington voters and taxpayers. The revenue-sharing agreement doesn’t end that obligation.

But, he said, there are some improvements that could help that process along. "I’d like to see us have our own citizen’s advisory committee for the budget in place," he said. "It should be if we’re going to have permanent revenue-sharing in place."

The lack of such an advisory commission is a glaring omission at the moment, Foster and Hynes said. Currently, the school board gets advice from county citizens on teaching goals at the schools, and on plans to make changes to school buildings around the county.

With the budget work, those make up the board’s three major goals across the course of the year, Hynes said, so it makes sense to get citizen advice on the budget too.

"The superintendent has an advisory committee," she said. "I think that will migrate over to the school board."