Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Robert Smith has proposed a $390.4 million budget for fiscal year 2007, which calls for a pay raise for teachers, more early childhood classes and a new foreign language program for elementary school students.
Smith’s proposal represents a 2.6 percent increase over the school system’s 2006 appropriated budget.
Though Smith did not call for any new major initiatives, he said the budget would “provide continuity” and help the school system achieve its twin goals of raising student performance and eliminating the minority achievement gap.
If the budget is adopted as is, the cost per student will grow by nearly 8.9 percent to $17,923. A public hearing on the budget will be held on March 16, and the School Board will vote on it during its May 4 meeting.
“The Arlington public is willing to pay for quality education,” Smith said. “Things like smaller classes, more classes for four-year-olds and full day kindergarten drive up the cost. But we think it’s a good investment.”
Due to the expected drop in student enrollment next year- the fifth straight year of decline- the school system will receive $2.4 million less from the county than it did this year.
As part of a revenue sharing agreement, the county government gives the school system a percentage of local tax revenue each year based on a formula tied to the student population. For 2007, the county is transferring 47.7 percent of local tax revenue, a decrease from 48.1 percent in fiscal year 2006.
“The decline in students has been fairly measured,” Smith said. “We don’t know where it will end up. Kindergarten and first grade are our two largest classes.”
IN REACTION TO the loss of revenue from the county, Smith is proposing the elimination of 37 school-based and five central office positions. Smith said his budget is based on an assumption that the county will cut real estate taxes by 5 cents.
One of the county’s greatest challenges in the coming year is competing to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers, Smith said. Recently, neighboring jurisdictions have raised the salaries of entry-level teachers.
"We know that a number of our neighbors are making major initiatives in compensation for teachers,” Smith said. “We were at the top of the heap last year in almost every level. We probably won't be this year."
In response he has proposed a 2 percent raise for all staff members. If further funds are available, Smith said he would like to increase salaries by an additional 1 percent. He is also pushing for greater compensation for substitute teachers and assistants who become “highly-qualified” in certain subjects.
Smith said that though Arlington may now have a lower base pay than some other districts, the school system has a “competitive edge” in recruitment because of its commitment to small class sizes and its supportive staff.
“I believe the work we’ve done in the proposed budget to ensure we have quality professional development and a quality school climate is more important than the salary,” he added.
Much of the remaining new funding goes to support early childhood education initiatives. Smith would like to add two additional Pre-Kindergarten classes and begin an extended-day pilot program for Pre-K students.
School Board member Libby Garvey applauded Smith’s efforts to expand the county’s educational offerings for younger children.
“We talk about being a world-class school system… and that means teaching the little ones and digging deeper to the three- and four-year-olds,” she said. “And that costs a lot of money.”
The superintendent is hoping the School Board will approve a new program that will add foreign language instruction to two or more elementary schools. Administrators are currently accepting proposals from schools.
“We're being responsive to what appears to be a real community interest and something the board is interested in," Smith said. “We believe that American citizens should be literate in more than one language.”
Several other factors outside the school system’s control contributed to the enlarged size of the budget proposal. Dramatic increases in energy and construction costs have placed an added “financial strain,” Smith said. Last year construction costs escalated by 11 percent, compared to less than 3 percent in 2003.
School Board member Frank Wilson said the rising school budget was a necessity in order to achieve the school system’ goals in the coming year.
“It takes a lot of money to educate these kids at the level we should,” he said. “Our dollars represent a good investment in our teachers and community.”
Other School Board members expressed some concerns over budget items. Vice Chair Mary Hynes said she would like to see more programs geared toward improving student reading scores.
School Board Chair Dave Foster said he was dismayed by the fact that the school’s operating fund would grow by more than 8 percent even though enrollment is set to decline.
“I hope we can find a way to slow the trend of operating expenditures and put more away for growing capital costs,” he added.