The School Board passed the final version of its 2007 fiscal budget last Thursday, with Chair Dave Foster casting the lone dissenting vote because of his opposition to a large increase in the system’s operating fund.
THE ADOPTED budget comes to a total of $398.3 million, an increase of 3.6 percent from last year’s budget.
Due to additional revenue from the county and a raise in the personal property tax, the school system received $1.64 more than anticipated when the School Board endorsed a preliminary budget last month.
More than $1.5 million of the new money will go toward the capital reserve fund, with the remaining portion supplementing the inaugural Chinese and Arabic course program and providing for a principal’s assistant at Arlington Science Focus Elementary School.
The big surprise of the night came when Foster announced he would be voting against the budget. Foster said he could not support a budget that expanded the system’s operating funds by 8.2 percent at a time when the student population is declining.
"The growth in the operating fund strikes me as excessive and something we can’t sustain," Foster said during the School Board’s May 4 meeting.
The chair would have preferred that more money be devoted to the capital fund to help defray the escalating costs of construction. Arlington schools are in the midst of an ambitious capitol improvement program that includes a new Washington-Lee High School and a large addition to Yorktown High School.
"I HAVE a hard time justifying that kind of [operating fund] increase when we have critical capital needs," said Foster, the board’s lone Republican.
Foster’s fellow board members defended the jump in spending, arguing that it was integral to sustaining the services and education that residents expect.
"The things we continue to do in the system doesn’t come cheap," said board member Frank Wilson.
To address one of the school system’s greatest challenges in the coming year — recruiting high-quality teachers — the board approved a 3 percent pay raise for all staff. In recent years the outlying suburbs, like Loudoun and Prince William counties, have expanded teacher’s pay in a push to attract new hires to their growing districts.
School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said new measures that pushed the budget higher, such as a foreign language program for a few elementary schools, providing more buses for students with disabilities and updating schools’ technology, were requested by parents and teachers.
"These are initiatives that we have been working on and are committed to expanding," Hynes said. "These are places where our hearts are and where we said our priority is."
While none of the four Democrats on the board rejected the budget, Ed Fendley signaled that he agreed with Foster’s concerns about the growth in the operating budget. Fendley, who was elected in November, said he would push for a budget proposal next year "that is lean, efficient and effective."
Besides the pay raises for teachers and staff, much of the new funding in the budget goes to support early childhood education initiatives. The School Board is also considering a new program that will add foreign language instruction to two or more elementary schools.