The Alexandria School Board and City Council held a budget work session Tuesday night to discuss this year's school operating and Capital Improvement Program budgets.
"While I believe that the school budget meets the needs of the students for the upcoming year, we are going to have to look carefully at every component of the city budget and find places that we may be able to trim,” said Mayor Kerry J. Donley. “I thought it was a good meeting and was glad to have the opportunity to listen to the Board’s presentation. Now we are just going to have to look carefully at everything.”
This meeting was one in a series of budget work sessions that Council will conduct during April before voting on the entire budget on April 29. Members of the Board presented the budget and responded to questions from Council.
“Vice Mayor William Cleveland had questions about our laptop program at the Ninth-Grade Center, and I believe that we answered them,” said Board member Molly Danforth. “We will certainly hold training sessions with parents and students before we send computers home. I visited a site in Henrico County where this project has been implemented, and it is working well.”
While Cleveland had questions about the laptop program, Councilman David Speck had questions about the compensation package. “Our philosophy in the city has always been that we do not want to be a leader or a laggard when it comes to compensation,” Speck said. “I still do not understand exactly what this compensation package does.
“We want to give some additional relief to our citizens by further reducing the real-estate-tax rate, and we are going to have to take a careful look at everything in the city’s budget to do that,” he said.
SUPERINTENDENT REBECCA PERRY originally proposed providing laptop computers to 3,000 students in grades nine-12. The School Board approved a pilot project at Minnie Howard, which will cost $440,000. The compensation package will eventually tie salary increases for teachers to performance. The budgeted amount will move teachers from the old compensation to the new one, will provide for step increases and a cost-of-living increase.
Board member Gwen Lewis said she was optimistic. “I certainly think that some members of Council still have questions, but I believe that we answered most of them and will be able to answer any remaining questions,” she said. “This budget is pretty tight, and it was well-thought-through by the Board.”
Councilwoman Claire Eberwein said she was going to look carefully at the school budget. “While the budget is generally sound, the schools have included some new programs that are fairly expensive,” she said. “I am working with my Council colleagues to reduce the tax rate by an additional 3 cents, and we are going to have to look at everything very carefully to make this happen.”
V. Rodger Digilio, the chairman of the Board’s Facilities Committee, presented the system’s capital budget. “I am pleased that Council seemed very supportive of the capital budget,” Digilio said.
Councilman William Euille had some questions about the cost of construction at George Washington Middle School. “There was an additional $2.6 million in the budget for FY ‘04 that was not there in FY ‘02 or FY ‘03,” Euille said. “I wanted to make sure that this increase was not the result of mismanagement or cost overruns. While I am satisfied that some of the increase is the result of new construction and another part of it is the result of unforeseen soil conditions, I am concerned that we may see additional costs as the project comes to an end. For now, I am willing to accept what the Board and the staff said about this matter.”
THE CAPITAL BUDGET also includes $75 million for T.C. Williams High School construction. This project was not discussed in any detail at Tuesday’s meeting.
“This is such an important project that I proposed having a joint meeting with the Board, Council, the Parks and Recreation Department and the Planning Commission in May or June,” Eberwein said. “This will allow us to discuss the outstanding issues that remain to be resolved.”
Donley agreed. “The last time we had such a meeting, it was very helpful,” he said. “There are some outstanding issues that we need to discuss.”
Those issues include parking, the stadium, and joint planning for T.C. and Chinquapin.