Budget Session Sparks Spending Fight

Budget Session Sparks Spending Fight

Board members complain that policies were ignored in hiring assistants.

Hiring kindergarten assistants isn’t a special event for Arlington Public Schools. But the decision about how many assistants will work in classroom’s next year prompted some School Board members to question how the school system has been making money decisions.

In a work session on the budget for next school year on Tuesday, March 23, school board member David Foster proposed cutting kindergarten class sizes to 21 students. As part of a discussion of that proposal, board members and school staff looked at how many classes would fall below a 17-student limit that determines whether the teacher gets a full-time assistant.

The discussion revealed that some classes smaller than 17 have full-time assistants. “I assume the system believes that an assistant is needed for certain classes of 16 or fewer,” said Foster.

But that decision flies in the face of school board policy, he said. School Board members have made the decision about what size classes should get an assistant, said Foster.

“In my view, the system doesn’t have the prerogative of ignoring board policy. The next question has to be, what other policies are not being followed?”

<b>SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT</b> Robert Smith said there can’t be a serious answer to any such questions without more facts. Last week’s discussion was predicated on incomplete data, he said, and on faulty presentations.

“We’re gathering information right now” on how many kindergarten classes smaller than 17 students have a full-time teacher’s assistant, said Smith. Without that information, neither staff nor board members know exactly how much money is being spent on such assistants, where they work, or under what circumstances they were hired.

Once that information is available, board members will need to take a hard look at how school resources are allocated, said Board member Elaine Furlow. “Planning factors are the board’s adopted guidelines for how to fairly plan and distribute basic resources,” she said. “So we feel they’re fairly important,” and are more than just suggestions.

But until information is available, any discussions would be based on conjecture. “Rather than making any assumptions about what is the situation, we’ve asked for information about how many classes there are,” she said. “That’ll give us a basis for discussion.”

Until then, some of the obvious assumptions aren’t pretty, said Beth Wolffe, a member of the Civic Federation’s school budget committee. “They have discovered that the superintendent and school staff have been ignoring school directives about the budget for years,” said Wolffe. “That’s disturbing, and it needs to be addressed and corrected.”

Assistants aren’t necessarily being hired with complete disregard for planning factors, said Smith. Hiring decisions are made in the spring before a school year starts, based on projected enrollments, he said, and a kindergarten class could have 22 students on paper in May, and only have 16 in class in September.

“If it appears we need them, we put them in,” said Smith. “If we end up with fewer students than we projected … we don’t just fire people. “

<b>MORE IS AT STAKE</b> than just School Board egos, said Foster. “We have a golden opportunity to have classes of 16 or fewer throughout the county,” which would give teachers more time to spend on individual students.

That opportunity is jeopardized if funding isn’t available to hire enough teachers, he said, and the number of unneeded classroom assistants could affect how much money is available to hire teachers. Each assistant costs roughly $28,000 to the county in salary and benefits, said Foster, so two assistants cost about as much as one teacher.

“I understand the importance of kindergarten assistants,” said Foster. “But at some point, a class becomes small enough to share an assistant with another class.”

Foster also worried that public confidence in school spending could be shaken if administrators ignore board policies. “It could make the public suspicious,” he said. “It’s critical that board policies be followed. I could and do support additional expenditures to lower kindergarten class size, but we should not be discovering expenditures contrary to board policy.”

He looked forward to continuing the discussion over the school budget, and lower class sizes, and swore to continue monitoring Smith’s spending decisions in a policy compliance report due later this year.

Smith said those discussion won’t end, with passage of the budget next month, or with the policy compliance report. Hiring decisions have to be made every spring, he said, and every spring provides the opportunity for a fresh start.