Snowstorms interrupted the typical school budget process this year. But in spite of the bad weather, School Board members went to work on Superintendent Robert Smith’s budget proposal, trimming over $1.5 million in expenses while adding more than $1 million to reduce class sizes.
Spending cuts and budget additions nearly offset each other, but Board members addressed several new priorities in the approved school budget for FY ‘04.
At their Thursday, March 6 meeting, School Board members approved a budget proposal totaling just over $323 million. The vote marked the final step for the School Board, but the budget will not be formally set until May 22, when County Board members approve the county’s overall budget for the coming fiscal year starting July 1.
Last month, school superintendent Robert Smith recommended a budget just over $322 million. Board members kept most of Smith’s proposals but found savings of just over $1.5 million, which will allow accelerated construction at Kenmore Middle School, and added about $1 million to reduce class sizes.
CLASS-SIZE REDUCTION was identified as a priority for the Board this year, but Smith’s proposal failed to include any money specifically for that initiative. Board member Dave Foster had championed the issue since he began his tenure on the Board and was “gratified and pleased” that the Board had voted unanimously to approve the $1 million in funds.
The increase will not be enough to reduce class size in all grades but will instead target the grades identified by teachers and parents as the most overcrowded. Middle-school classes have been the most overcrowded in recent years, Foster said, and they will get the biggest chunk, $476,640.
Those funds will go toward hiring enough teachers to reduce projected class sizes by one student each. Students in grades four and five will also see smaller classes with $243,450 in funds, and kindergarten and Montessori classes will also be reduced by one student, at a cost of $71,250. Officials will disperse the remaining $250,000 allocated for class-size reduction to advanced secondary classes.
Targeting the upper elementary grades makes sense, said Dina Land, Nottingham Elementary’s PTA president. Those grades are most overcrowded, and students at that age are some of the most difficult to deal with in crowded conditions.
OTHER BUDGET ITEMS are also intended to improve student achievement. In fact, without a major new budget direction, the FY ‘04 budget deals with little aside from how Arlington students perform. “This entire budget is all about student achievement,” said School Board member Frank Wilson.
In 2003, School Board members directed Smith to focus his budget on teachers’ salaries, but Smith said the 2004 proposal contained no such high-profile issue. That left many employees feeling left out.
“On balance, employees are not excited about the proposed budget,” said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association, the county’s teachers union.
Poor increases this year lessen the impact of last year’s efforts to improve teachers’ salaries, she said. McCreery pointed to studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show a 3.7-percent increase in the Washington area’s Consumer Price Index. However school employees will receive just a 2-percent cost-of-living increase next year, leaving Arlington lagging, McCreery said.
Indeed, local teachers holding a master’s degree, who constitute the bulk of Arlington’s staff, will no longer be the highest-paid teachers in the metro region next year, as they were this year. In Alexandria, master’s-degree-level salaries will top Arlington’s in every step of the pay scale – $2,200 more than Arlington’s at the entry level.
SUPPORT FOR STAFF spurred several funding increases, including $330,000 to help instructional assistants gain training and certification they must have to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That amount is $180,000 less than Smith proposed last month, however.
Board member Mary Hynes said she had concerns over how the new law would affect students and staff, making it premature to commit more money to meeting requirements of No Child Left Behind this year. “It’s not for lack of commitment,” she said, adding that more money will probably go toward staff training for the 2004-05 school year.
Other additions to the 2004 budget include $110,000 to ensure all hourly employees receive a living wage, and funding to hire additional assistant principals and full-time early-childhood supervisors and immersion specialists.
The budget will require a total county transfer of $253 million and will maintain the school’s $4 million reserve fund.