Since 2000, school enrollment has declined by about 600 students. But the cost to city taxpayers has increased by about $40 million. This has led to a growing sense of unease among low-tax advocates who say that the city schools need an audit.
“We’re not concerned about an audit,” said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. “In fact, we welcome it.”
At the end of the Sept. 22 board meeting, board members voted to put the Alexandria school system on a waiting list for an Accountability and Efficiently Review, known as a “governor’s audit.” The audits were created earlier this year by HB1967, a bill patroned by Del. Kristen Amundson (D-44) as part of Gov. Mark Warner’s Education for a Lifetime Initiative. In February, a governor’s audit in Portsmouth found $2,084,635 in potential annual savings and $360,664 in one-time savings for Portsmouth Public Schools.
“Last year, we managed to secure a bipartisan budget compromise which reaffirmed our commitment to K-12 education,” Warner said in a Feb. 4 press release. “But with this commitment also comes the responsibility of ensuring that these taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and effectively. These efficiency reviews show that the commonwealth and localities are meeting this responsibility by identifying considerable savings in our school systems.”
The law requires school divisions to pay 25 percent of the cost of the school efficiency review in the fiscal year immediately following the completion of the final school efficiency review report. The commonwealth appropriated $1,182,000 for the program for the 2005-2006 school year, but Alexandria’s audit would probably come next year.
"I think we're being responsible to the taxpayers to provide our services as efficiently as we possibly can," said School Board Chairwoman Mollie Danforth. "The city audits us every year to make sure our books are right, and we're always looking for ways be more cost effective. So we're looking forward to the find out what the results of the efficiency review will be."
Because of the School Board's vote last week, auditors and management specialists from the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget will conduct a review of the Alexandria City Public School System. The review will culminate in series of suggestions that will be designed to help the school system realize greater efficiency and identify best practices.
One of the goals of the efficiency review will be to combat the perception that the Alexandria City School system is spending its money in ways that don't benefit students. In recent years, many parents have expressed frustration with the choices that are made by school administrators.
"We've been fighting for three years to get a science teacher at Maury," said Richard Holtz III, who has a third grader at the elementary school. "I think our schools are inefficient, and I'm not sure that they go after all the grant money that's available."
THE BUDGET CYCLE this year will be unlike previous years. Not only will it be on an earlier schedule — forcing the school administrators to work a month ahead of schedule — it will also include City Council mandates targets. Council members will set the school budget targets at their October retreat.
At a June meeting between City Council members and School Board members, the new budget process erupted into controversy when then-Chairman Mark Wilkoff criticized the new process.
“This gives us a very short time to get input from our community, and I don’t want to be backstabbed,” said Wilkoff at a June meeting between School Board members and City Council members. “There are some people that are willing to do that, and it concerns me.”
Councilman Andrew Macdonald, a frequent critic of the School Board, said that the budget process would not be used as a backstabbing opportunity.
“If we set up a process, obviously we have to be willing to support it,” Macdonald said. “What are they more concerned with — backstabbing or the new timetable? We’re trying to get better information from the School Board — information that’s more accurate and precise. We’re trying to improve the process, not attack people or do anything of the sort.”
THE IMBALANCE BETWEEN rising costs and declining enrollment is an issue that has long haunted School Board proceedings. And school administrators have struggled for years to defend larger budgets.
“Any time the cost to taxpayers increases, there needs to be a justification to taxpayers,” said Annie Patnaude, spokesperson for the Alexandria-based National Taxpayers Union. “I don’t think that the school system has justified spending increases.”
School Board members cite many reasons for the increased cost of education Alexandria’s public school students: rising fuel costs, increased health care costs and unfunded federal and state mandates.
“It costs a lot to run schools,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Sally Ann Baynard. “And we don’t have your average, easy-to-educate students.”
Salaries consume the biggest part of the school budget at 65 percent. Employee benefits, a growing percentage of the budget, accounts for 20 percent. The city’s appropriation for the schools’ budget has been steadily increasing for years. This year, it grew 6 percent. Last year, it grew 7 percent. The year before, it grew 5 percent.
The Alexandria City Public Schools budget for fiscal year 2006 is $165,800,957, a total that includes federal and state aid. The city’s appropriation is $138,273,138 — that’s $8,643,416 more than last year even though the system will have about 80 fewer students. And the trend of declining enrollment could continue if market forces continue to deplete affordable housing in the city.
“It’s been very difficult for City Council members to understand why costs are growing,” said Macdonald, adding that 4,000 rental apartments on the west end known as the “Winkler portfolio” might be sold. “We could end up with a depopulated Ramsay Elementary School.”
SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS and the superintendent are in the midst of preparing for the new budget year. One of the biggest issues facing School Board members is the imbalance between city salaries and school salaries.
“It continues to bother me that the city offers better benefits than we do,” said School Board member Mark Wilkoff, who stepped down as chairman in July. “I’d call their bluff.”
At a recent work session to consider budget issues, Superintendent Rebecca Perry said that discipline on school buses might be an area where increase spending might be justified. Discipline problems are a growing problem in Alexandria schools, with suspensions on the rise.
“I would like to see cameras on the buses,” Perry said. “You can show parents what happened instead of having an argument about it.”
She estimated that the cameras would cost about $88,000.
Another potential area for new spending would be overhauling Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics. This year, the troubled school failed to meet accreditation in math, history and science. Because it has failed to meet federal standards for several years, the school has been penalized by allowing its students to transfer to other schools under No Child Left Behind. This year, as a result of making adequate yearly progress, the school will offering federally funded tutoring to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“The focus program has not brought any improvement to Jefferson-Houston,” said Baynard. “I think changing Jefferson-Houston to a traditional academy like Lyles-Crouch would be a great idea — if we could increase the school day to be from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
An 8-to- 6 schedule would be unusual in Alexandria, and no school in the division currently keeps such extended hours. Perry is currently investigating how much this proposal might cost, and School Board members will consider transforming Jefferson-Houston in the upcoming budget year.