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As Budget Approval Nears, Teachers, Watchdogs Look at Details

With only three weeks left in discussions over a budget for next year in Arlington schools, there has been little controversy among traditional school budget watchers.

Representatives from the County Council of PTAs are scheduled to present their budget recommendations next Tuesday, March 16, at the School Board’s annual public hearing on Superintendent Robert Smith’s proposed school budget.

But this year’s budget does not include the aggressive teacher salary increases of the Teacher Excellence Initiative, in 2002, or concern over unknown effects of No Child Left Behind that came during last year’s budget process.

Still, there are causes for concern, said Beth Wolffe, a 2002 School Board candidate and co-chair of the school budget committee for the Arlington Civic Federation. “I have some inherent concerns about an operating budget that is rising so rapidly when enrollment is falling.”

Smith’s budget proposal would increase spending on county schools from $325.7 million this school year to $346.5 million next year — a 6.4 percent budget increase, at a time when the school system is predicting that total enrollment in the public schools will fall by 175 students next year, and by almost 1,000 students over the next five years. In fact, projected enrollment in 2009 would be at a 15-year low.

<b>WITH A PROJECTED DECLINE</b> in school population, questions about school funding in the state budget, and an undetermined local tax rate that may fall in the face of rising assessments, Wolffe’s co-chair Roger Meyer said he was pleased to see possibilities for budget cuts built into Smith’s proposed budget.

The superintendent recommended few new budget initiatives in his proposal. The initiatives that would be funded are divided into three tiers based on their importance in the system.

Identifying the importance of those programs in the proposed budget is a noteable advance from previous budgets, said Meyer, in that it heads off some arguments about what to cut, and lets school staff know whether they should brace for budget cuts. “If and when the County Board cuts the tax rate, then the lowest tier … will be cut from the budget.”

<b>THAT SAME PROCESS,</b> which lets Smith plan for such cuts, is part of the problem, said Wolffe. For the last three years, School Board and County Board members have agreed that schools should get 48.6 percent of county tax revenues before either schools or county government begins budget planning.

In the past, Wolffe has criticized that arrangement, which lets School Board members off the hook, she said, from justifying all planned expenditures to the county government.

This year’s budget takes that process even further, Wolffe said, by not specifying how Arlington can assess the performance of many programs. Without such planned assessments, she said, it’s difficult to tell whether many programs are worth continued funding.

“They never report on the success of a program, they never report on how many kids did better in terms of tests, grades, behavior issues,” she said. “Year after year, they only want more.”

<b>STILL, WOLFFE WAS</b> pleased to see some of Smith’s proposed expenditures included this year, particularly a $650,000 program sending new sixth-grade reading teachers to all Arlington middle schools.

That proposal is the biggest new initiative in Smith’s budget proposal, and would be funded unless the schools see a drastic cut in state and local funding.

“I would like to see not just reading teachers, but teachers to lower the class size in middle school classes in general,” said Wolffe. “I think it’s a good idea in general to reduce class size.”

But the reading teachers could have that effect, she said, adding about two new teachers to middle schools, thereby relieving class loads on other teachers.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if what happens is, that not all of the teachers [hired with Smith’s proposed funds] turn out to be reading teachers,” said Wolffe.

<b>TEACHERS THEMSELVES</b> were pleased with Smith’s budget, said Kris White, president of the Arlington Education Association, a county teacher coalition.

AEA members had hoped for a larger cost-of-living increase, she said. But Smith proposed spending $4.6 million for a 2 percent cost-of-living increase in teacher salaries. That comes on top of a 5-percent salary increase for most teachers as they move up an annual step in salary scale.

So increasing cost-of-living increases “is not something we’re fighting over now,” said White. “Down the road, we may have to address making some changes in it.”

There are other issues at play for teachers, she said, especially winning back some retirement benefits for older teachers. But this year, as in years past, said White, that is more a war of attrition than an intense lobbying effort.

“We don’t want to feel like we’re always finding something to fight about,” said White.