There didn’t seem to be much mystery about the final budget for Arlington schools.
School board members had hammered out most of the details months before, when they unanimously approved Superintendent Robert Smith’s budget proposal in March.
So the 5-0 vote to approve the final budget at the May 16 School Board meeting seemed like an afterthought, as the board approved a budget that increased teacher salaries, year-to-year pay raises for teachers and administrators, and begins a series of educational initiatives around Arlington schools.
But as School Board Chair Mary Hynes began moving the board towards the inevitable, politics reared its head. Board member Dave Foster questioned a proposed $4 million reserve fund, a new fund in this year’s budget.
"I have my doubts, Madame Chair, about the size of this reserve," Foster said, and the board went on to vote separately on the $4 million allocation, passing it 4-1.
It might have been an insignificant discussion. But Foster is the one current school board member elected to the board with the endorsement of the county Republican party. And Hynes is up for election this year, facing another candidate seeking the Republicans’ seal of approval.
<b>IN VIRGINIA,</b> school board candidates do not run for office with an explicit party nomination. But the local parties can endorse candidates, letting voters know who has the Democratic or Republican imprimatur.
Hynes received the Democratic endorsement in the May 14 Democratic caucus. Her opponent, Beth Wolffe, has likewise gotten approval from Arlington Republicans, and Wolffe has already spoken out against the $4 million reserve fund during hearings on the school budget.
So when Foster raised objections to the size of the reserve at last week’s meeting, he was treading ground already ensconced in Arlington Republicans’ campaign arsenal.
"We’ve survived the better part of a century without this kind of reserve fund," Foster told Hynes. Four million dollars represents a significant increase in teacher pay, he said, or one-time capital projects, he said.
The reasons for including such a sizable reserve, he said, were in case of a coming budget shortfall, or unforeseen contingencies, financial or physical disasters that could shut down the school system.
"But we know assessments will rise 9 percent next year, at least," Foster said. "This might support unforeseen contingencies, but nobody can explain to me exactly what that is."
Given the size of the schools’ budget, Hynes responded, $4 million was not an especially large reserve – less than 2 percent.
"We know that assessments will rise, but that is predicated on the tax rate, and we know that is subject to change by the County Board," she said.
Hynes found agreement among the other board members. But in a concession to Foster’s concerns, she asked school staff to put together a system for doling out funds from the reserve, a system that the board members will consider at their June 6 meeting