Superintendent Rebecca Perry presented her proposed budget to members of the School Board on Dec. 19, suggesting a $191.5 million budget, which represents a 5.2-percent increase over last year's budget. The appropriation she is seeking from the city is $162.6 million, which is an 8.5-percent increase over last year's appropriation from the city. School Board members will have four budget work sessions before they are scheduled to vote on their version of the budget on Jan. 31.
The City Council set a 3.75-percent increase in the city's appropriation to the schools as a target for growth in the budget, but you are proposing an 8.5-percent increase in the city's appropriation. Why are you proposing a budget that is above the target?
The target was unrealistic because our mandatory increases are greater than 3.75 percent. It would be impossible to meet that that target without seriously impacting the quality of education in Alexandria. For example, the increase that we have to pay for the Virginia Retirement System is more than $1 million. We have more people who are participating in health and dental benefits, and that's $405,000. Rental costs of buildings are also increasing, and health-insurance costs have increased tremendously this year.
Does your budget have any new initiatives?
Yes. My budget has a focus on literacy for the 21st century. And that's mainly in the area of four literacy coaches and staff development for retraining some of our other teachers and literacy coaches. The first thing we did was to prioritize our budget, and we asked ourselves what are the most important things we do. Well, the most important thing we do is teach children to read. Reading interventions and literacy for the 21st century are absolutely essential for our children's success. We had to cut a number of other positions to add these four new literacy coaches because we felt that this was the right thing to do.
What did you cut?
We have a net cut of 60.13 positions this year. Some of those people will be reassigned other places, and others will be told that they have to go. Every department has been told that they have to cut 10 to 20 percent, so we're doing an across-the-board cut. We've also reorganized some of the ways that we do custodial services to find savings.
Why did you budget $500,000 to move into the new T.C. Williams High School?
It's a lot harder to move from an old school to a new school than it is to open a brand new school and not move anything. As a matter of a fact, I'm concerned that it's not enough. We will have a budget work session with the School Board members to address everything that covers. It’s a figure that includes things like unhooking the television station and installing it in the new school, dismantling all the computers, chemicals that have to be moved properly — all sorts of things that need to be done and done quickly.
Will any teachers get raises this year?
Last year, there was a revision to the teacher salary scale in order to keep us competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. We didn't adjust the bachelor's scale as much as the master's but that was on purpose because we don't want people to stop with a bachelor's degree. They need to get a master's degree. So that's our encouragement. Most of our teachers have master's degrees. This year, the teachers will be getting a "step" increase but they will not be getting an adjustment like they did last year.
Does your budget have any new personnel positions?
We have four new literacy coaches, and there are also some other readjustments. I deleted more than 80 positions before we started. Then, because of readjustments, we have new positions that we had to add. In the end, we have a net decrease of 60.13 positions.
What is different about this budget?
For the first time, we have a net reduction of more than 60 positions. And we have a reduction of some programs that, frankly, I would prefer not to reduce. It was a really difficult process this year, and I have done everything possible to not have a detrimental influence on the school system this year. I'm sure that everyone who has lost a position will be screaming that it's detrimental, but every effort was made to make this budget as responsible as possible while still maintaining the quality of education. This was as low as I could go without impacting that quality.
What kind of savings would you recommend School Board members look for in the budget.
I don't believe there are any. The recommended budget reductions cut more than $6 million out of the existing budget, and that includes personnel and program reductions and some membership-driven reductions as well. Right off the bat, we had $121 million in salaries and $38 million in health benefits so it's been a very challenging budget environment for us.
If the School Board members vote for a budget of less than $191.5 million, will they be harming education in Alexandria?
Maybe they'll find something I haven't found. I'll just have to see what they suggest. We already have people who are unhappy about the cuts that I've suggested.
What kind of opposition to this budget do you expect?
It's going to be a very difficult budget year. Anyone who takes a cut, of course, gets upset. So we're going to hear about that. And all of the cuts that we made are things that are good things, but they are not our core mission of K-12 education.
Does the school system have a deficit?
No. The school system does not have a deficit. We do have "lapse salaries," which are savings that are in every major-size organization. They are budgeted in every organization that deals with a number of people. When somebody leaves and I replace them with somebody else, it's going to cost me less. Or if I don't hire a replacement for two months, it'll save money. Sometimes, over the years, I've purposefully not hired somebody for a month or two to make that savings. Some jurisdictions do not include this information in their budgets, but I think it's a matter of transparency to include these numbers.
All budgets are statements of priorities. What does your budget say about the priority of the school system?
It says that our priority is reading and academic achievement of students. Reading for the 21st century is very different than just reading a novel. It includes being able to read online and being able to read technical materials. This is really where America falls down compared to European countries. It's not just the words. It's the content too. You've got to be able to read manuals if you want to get through life these days, and you've got to be able to be able to sort out a variety of materials.
Many people will look at this budget and say it seems high. What would you say to those people?
A 5.2-percent increase is the lowest increase in more than 10 years, and anyone who has been shopping in the last 10 years knows that the cost of doing business has increased. Our state, federal and local revenues are down, we have tried to build the most responsible budget we could. So I don’t think that this budget is excessive in any way, and it’s as responsible as we could possibly make it.