In a special work session Sept. 29, School Board members received Superintendent Rebecca Perry's "operating budget preliminary forecast." She recommended that the operating budget be set at $181,071,961, a 9.39 percent increase over last year's budget.
"This is only a forecast," Perry said after the session. "The details are still being worked out."
School administrators, who estimate that city schools will have 87 fewer students this year, cited several reasons for increased spending. The largest increased cost to the School Board is the rising contribution to the Virginia Retirement System mandated by the system's board of trustees. Perry estimates that retirement contributions increases will be more than $5 million. The Virginia Retirement System was created in 1942 to provide benefits for teachers, school administrators and most state employees.
"Unfortunately, the FY2007 budget will be significantly impacted by a mandated increase in the Virginia Retirement System rates for retirement benefits and group life insurance," Perry wrote. "This line item accounts for approximately 38 percent of the entire FY2007 budget increase."
Perry cited several other reasons for the increased cost to city taxpayers. Annual yearly raises will cost $3,500,000, about 24 percent of the budget increase. Health insurance contributions will increase $1,892,760, accounting for about 13 percent of the budget increase. New federal requirements that require the school system to serve special education students attending private schools will cost $898,121, about 6.3 percent of the budget increase. The rising cost of fuel will raise the schools' motor vehicle budget by $300,000, and utility costs are expected to increase $375,000.
"Last year, we paid $1.41 a gallon for gas," Perry said during the session. "This year, we estimate that gas will cost about $2.75 a gallon."
Perry's forecast is part of the city's new budget process, which was created by a May 2 ordinance. The ordinance stipulates that the Alexandria City Public Schools superintended is required to send a forecast to the City Council. Members of the council will use Perry's forecast to set a target for the schools during its upcoming retreat on Oct. 29. The School Board is required to approve a budget by Jan. 31.
THE BUDGET FORECAST calls for heavy weather, and School Board members are eager to avoid the kind of controversy that has been plaguing its relations with the city for the last year. Perry's strategy for the upcoming process is to present a scaled-down budget that will be easily accepted by City Council members and the public. In a Sept. 23 letter to School Board members, Perry said that the 9-percent increase wouldn't create any new initiatives.
"In response to City Council's requirement for an expedited budget process, I have developed a preliminary budget forecast that maintains existing programs and carries forward the goal of achieving accreditation of all our schools," Perry wrote. "No new initiatives are funded in this forecast, but essential program improvements are included."
One program improvement that faced opposition with some School Board members at the Sept. 29 work session was a $120,565 request for a television station director for the school system's cable channel.
"To improve communication with the school and non-school community, preparations are being made to add a new ACPS TV station director position," Perry wrote. "This position will allow the school system to increase the amount of original programming and expand our production capabilities so that we may better highlight our achievements and inform the public about important issues."
But board members torpedoed the idea. School Board member Mark Eaton called the item "an eyebrow raiser," and suggested that it might garner criticism. Chairwoman Mollie Danforth agreed.
"I can't support that," Danforth said. "I think that would be a red flag, and I don't think we need to put out red flags right now."
The "High School Technology Integration Project" consumes the majority of Perry's suggested program improvements with a combined price tag of $556,961. The biggest cost is hosting and licensing BlackBoard, an online system for teachers and students, which is estimated at $236,000. Perry also plans to add new full-time positions to teach and administer technological resources.
One program improvement on Perry's list was "enhancing" the troubled Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics, which failed to meet Virginia Department of Education accreditation in three separate categories last year. Perry plans to spend $101,967 on several projects to improve the school: adding a science laboratory, a science instructor and several classes for parents. The money will also cover programs currently funded by the 21st Century grant, which expires this year. The federal grant provided funding for after-school enrichment programs for students at Jefferson-Houston.
TEACHER PAY is an area where Perry wants to make additional investments, offering more competitive salaries in Alexandria City Schools. Her budget forecast included a proposal to increase the pay scale for teachers who hold a bachelor's degree.
"The current starting salary in ACPS for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $35,562. All of our neighboring jurisdictions have higher starting salaries, ranging from $37,615 to $40,816," Perry wrote in the Sept. 23 letter to School Board members. "I am proposing a new starting salary of $40,816 for a bachelor's degree along with some other refinements to the teacher salary schedule."
She estimated that raising the salary scale would cost about $2 million, which accounted for 14 percent of the total budget increases. Perry added that she would like to raise the pay scale for all the teachers, but those with a master's degree would have to wait until next year to see higher salaries.