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School Board Works on $322 Million Budget Proposal

Smith’s plan 5.6 percent higher than last year.

Last year, when Robert Smith released his proposed school budget, he had a theme, central to planning for the budget: higher salaries and greater support for Arlington teachers.

This year, the proposed budget for fiscal 2004 lacks a major new initiative, but it provides a solid base for “supporting student success,” said Smith, superintendent of Arlington schools. “In a way, there’s nothing particularly sexy here.”

Smith unveiled his proposed $322 million budget at the Feb. 6 school board meeting, a 5.6 percent increase from the $305 million budget approved by the board to finance schools during the 2002-03 school year.

Rising costs of health insurance across the nation have forced many employers, including governments and school districts, to alter their budgets, Smith said. Debt service also represents a major expenditure for the schools next year, as will initial startup costs for a new bilingual Spanish immersion program at Claremont Elementary school.

Claremont’s renovated building will reopen next year. Remaining building costs, as well as the costs of staffing the new program and providing necessary supplies will come with a price tag of just over $1.1 million.

Although the schools’ Teacher Excellence Initiative is already a year old, Smith dedicated almost $7 million for improving the quality of school staff, with the lion’s share going to higher salaries for school support staff – secretaries, janitors and staffers at the administrative building.

RISING HEALTH INSURANCE costs and building projects would be offset by an expected increase in funding from the county under the budget, an increase guaranteed in part by a revenue-sharing agreement that members of the school and County boards agreed to last year.

But despite putting an extra $2.7 million into health insurance, the proposal would have school employees making up much of the extra costs in premiums, copayments and prescription costs.

Kathryn Scruggs, president of the Arlington Education Association, criticized that aspect of the proposed budget, saying that if board members don’t find another solution, they’ll be shirking their responsibility to employees, and especially to retirees, who would bear the brunt of the health insurance hike.

School board member Dave Foster also found fault with the proposal. Last year Foster pushed to make class size reduction a priority for the board. Despite unanimous support on the board for that initiative, Smith’s proposed budget does not contain funds allocated specifically for class size reduction.

Foster has support from county parents, too. On Monday, Feb. 3, the County Council of PTAs passed a resolution urging the board to make funds available for that initiative “in an efficient and effective manner.”

Jane Shepherd, president of the CCPTA said she will urge each of the county’s schools to decide for themselves what they need to cut class sizes, and ask the board to find the money. That could mean digging for funds for new teachers in the budget, she said, but individual PTAs need to develop specific proposals to take to the board as well.

The board will hold seven work sessions and a public hearing during this month, when they will address concerns like class size and health insurance, so the budget could change before the board officially adopts it Thursday, March 6.

EMPLOYEE COMPENSATION has been a hot topic in budget discussions for the last two years.

Over $3.5 million will be allocated this year to provide all employees with a 2 percent raise approved last year for teachers and administrators. In a new initiative for 2004, the pay raise will extend to support staff as well. That initiative comes with a $2 million price tag.

Smith said Arlington schools’ commitment to support staff comes partly in response to the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which puts greater training and certification requirements on all staff members who work with students, including teaching aides and assistants.

The additional funding in Smith’s proposal would help “recruit and retain high quality support staff,” as well as providing opportunities for paid leave for training and tuition reimbursement for support staff.

The measure is essential, said Scruggs. “They’re really a critical part of the school system.” Scruggs and the rest of AEA lobbied for inclusion of support staff in last year’s Teacher Excellence Initiative and said that the support staff should have received pay raises before administrators. Scruggs says that next year’s proposed 9.13 percent raise for support staff is better late than never.

IN ADDITION TO salary increases, employees would get a break in paying for retirement under Smith’s proposal. State funds pay 95 percent of employee’s fees for the Virginia Retirement System, leaving local school districts to fund the remaining 5 percent however they see fit.

Arlington teachers have been paying 0.5 percent of that, but with an additional $500,000 in next year’s budget, Arlington schools could absorb that cost, meaning that school system employees would not have to pay anything towards their own retirement.

Scruggs said that measure will help people who are still working. But the budget proposal ignores retirees, she said, who will not receive retroactive adjustments for the thousands of dollars they contributed to VRS over the years, and who will bear a huge burden under Smith’s health insurance proposal. About half the people on the school system’s health insurance plan are retirees, Scruggs said.

Smith’s budget proposal includes an increase of $2.7 million for the schools’ contribution to health insurance, a 21.6 percent increase over 2003. But the overall cost of health insurance has risen 30.3 percent, which means employees and retirees will have to absorb $1.1 million – meaning deductibles would jump from $130 to $200. Prescription costs would increase across the board, as even the price of generic drugs doubles.

Smith compared the costs to other insurance plans. Even with increased costs, Arlington school employees would be getting a good deal.

But Scruggs didn’t buy that argument. “It was a rich plan, and it was a rich plan by design,” she said. Generous health insurance has been one of the few benefits for teachers, she said, whose salaries are much lower than those of other professionals with similar education and skills.

Affordable health insurance has been one of the most important tools the school system has had for drawing qualified teachers away from other, more lucrative professions. If school board members are serious about continuing to recruit highly qualified teachers, Scruggs said, they’ll reject the proposed increases in prescription costs.

At the very least, AEA will lobby for the increases to be phased in over a three-year period instead of hitting employees and retirees with the increases all at once.

PHASING IN CHANGES could improve budget planning, according to some parents and school activists.

“I think the schools need to take a look at the long-term needs and try and fit each year’s budget into that context,” said Larry Fishtahler, co-chair of the school board’s advisory council on instruction and chair of the CCPTA’s budget committee. “What we really need to do a better job of is long-term planning, not just year-to-year,” he said.

Increasing health insurance premiums could be a necessary step, he said, but it’s important to understand the implications of changes that affect staff and retirees.

Long-term planning is difficult given the uncertain economic climate, said Smith. For the time being, Gov. Mark Warner (D) has promised that budget problems in Richmond will not affect funding for public schools, but there’s no guarantee that will continue.

But Smith said support from Arlington voters on bond referenda and the revenue-sharing agreement with the county government ensure that Arlington schools will have the financial support to continue improving student achievement throughout budgetary changes.