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Schools to Consider $346 Million Budget

Proposal by Superintendent Robert Smith would raise salaries by 2%, but some items depend on county, state decisions.

At a rescheduled School Board meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 17, Superintendent Robert Smith unveiled his proposed budget to fund the schools during the 2004-2005 school year.

The $346.5 million budget represents a 6.4 percent increase over the current $325.7 million dollar budget, and ups the ante almost 9 percent from the $317.9 million budget that Smith proposed last February.

Included in the budget is a $4.6 million for a 2-percent, across-the-board increase in school system salaries, for teachers and administrators; $254,900 for a one-student decrease in kindergarten class sizes; and $641,200 in funding for 11 sixth-grade reading teachers in all Arlington middle schools.

“The theme we’re focusing on is staying the course,” said Smith. “We’re dedicated to staying the course in rising achievement. There’s really only one way to go, in keeping an eye on our rising goals. This is all designed to support that.”

School budget watchers say that the schools should have room to budget for increasing achievement. Increased funding on initiatives comes in a year when school staff estimate enrollment will go down by 175 students, and funding will go up by $20.8 million.

“They’re getting a large increase over this time last year, for fewer students,” said Roger Meyers, co-chair of the Arlington Civic Federation’s school budget committee. “Life is good.”

<b>THERE ARE THREATS</b> to the amount of funding in the proposed budget, Smith said. “We don’t know what our level of state funding is going to be.”

His proposal includes numbers based on Gov. Mark Warner’s tax reform package passing the General Assembly, the superintendent said. So if a platform is approved with less funding for schools, then school staff and School Board members will have to reassess how to pay for some items.

In addition, he said, the amount of money coming from county coffers is based on a county budget with no cut in the tax rate. In the last month, County Board members have said they are inclined to consider cutting the county property tax rate, due to high assessments. A cut in the tax rate would mean a cut in county and school funding.

“If we get less state funding and a lower tax rate, we’ll get hit with a double whammy,” said Smith. That could mean the final school budget would cut some of his proposed programs like sixth grade reading teachers.

More likely to be cut, though, are lower-profile items, funds to replace graphing calculators in high schools, or money for new wrestling mats.

<B>THERE’S NO REASON</b> to think such funds will be cut, said Meyer.

“I’d be really surprised if it ends up being an overall decrease in state funding,” he said. “I may end up eating these words, but I would say the schools are going to end up pretty good on this.”

Budget discussions always include alarms about possible cuts in state and federal funds, he said. “I would say over the last three years, they’ve never been cut. Given past history, it should be an easy budget.”

In addition, School Board members could have $6.5 million in unallocated funds to make up any shortfalls. Smith’s budget includes a $4 million reserve fund, which past budgets have used as a kind of contingency fund. At the direction of School Board members, school staff also left out of the budget an estimated $2.5 million in additional funds that could come to the county at the end of its budget year, as county staff reestimate what revenues they will receive through real estate taxes.

That $6.5 million should give schools some breathing room, said Beth Wolffe, like Meyer a member of the Civic Federations’ school budget committee. “I think unusual things happen with reestimated funds,” she said. “I would tend to scrutinize how that money gets spent.”

<b>COUNTY BOARD MEMBERS</b> are due to hold a hearing on the county’s property tax rate on March 25, and will advertise a proposed tax rate before that hearing, giving the schools a better idea of how much funding they’ll get from county coffers next year. The School budget is based on county funding, and County Board decisions about their own budget.

The School Board should adopt a budget on April 1, and County Board members are set to adopt their budget on April 24. That means school staffers will finalize their budget decisions in late April or early May.

Smith was hoping to reexamine the numbers himself next month.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a little more clarity in a couple weeks, in terms of state funding,” he said.