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School Budget Missing Numbers

As the city manager expands documentation, school system struggles with its budget format.

The school system's laptop initiative is a frequent topic of conversation, and an important part of the annual budget. But don't expect to find much information about it in the Alexandria Public City School's budget document. Those who search will not be able to find the $376,474 annual price tag at Minnie Howard School under a lease with Dell that expires in 2007. Nor will they find reference to the $1.4-million cost of renting laptops from Hewlett Packard under a contract that expires in 2008. Instead, they will find a one-paragraph description of the program in the document's executive summary:

"Laptops for Grades 9-12: Funding is provided in the FY 2006-2007 budget to continue providing laptops to all high school students at Minnie Howard and T.C. Williams (including STEP). The base budget continues funding for the lease cost for the third year for T.C. Williams and for the fourth year for Minnie Howard."

Readers of the Final Approved FY 2006-07 Operating Budget will find nothing more about how many computers are involved or how they work. Nor will they find any performance-based measures detailing performance or even information as to who is in charge of the initiative. Although the total cost of the program was included in last year's publication, the number did not appear in this year's budget document.

"Last year, the laptop initiative was a new program, so we included the total because it was a new item," said Leslie Peterson, the school system's budget director. "But we don't include the cost of every continuing program."

OTHER PARTS of the budget also lack critical information. For example, the section of the budget labeled Student Services includes a page of mission statements and conceptual goals. On the next page is a list of line items and their total cost. For example, the document explains that the division plans to buy $1 million worth of purchased services. But the document does not describe what kind of services are being purchased or any measurement of their accountability.

"I think we need more transparency," said School Board member Yvonne Folkerts, chairwoman of the School Board's budget committee. "Our budget document needs to be more user friendly."

Folkerts said that her committee has included potential reform of the document as part of the committee's scope of work for the upcoming year. After hearing City Manager Jim Hartmann's proposal for including a series of performance-based price tags for programs and services on Saturday afternoon, Folkerts said that she was very impressed with the initiative's broad-based approach to breaking departments into programs and activities.

"It sounds terrific," she said. "I think the schools can definitely have more transparency in the expenditures."

DURING THE City Council's annual retreat this weekend, Councilwoman Del Pepper questioned Perry's $500,000 "contingency fund" for the transfer into the new T.C. Williams High School. Perry responded that the money would be needed if laboratory beakers were broken or if someone forgot to purchase markers for the whiteboards.

"Half a million dollars seems like a lot of money to me," Pepper said. "What happens if you don't need it?"

"It would remain part of our fund balance," the superintendent responded.

Pepper went on to question the laptop initiative and how the leases worked. She later requested that all of her questions be answered, and inquired as to if anyone from the school division's staff were taking notes at the meeting. Perry responded that her budget director was keeping a list of the inquiries and promised to address them in December when she releases her preliminary budget.

"I can hardly wait," Pepper responded.

Perry presented a preliminary budget forecast on Saturday that would require a $168.9 million appropriation from the city government. That's $13.7 million more than the 3.6-percent growth target the City Council would have to set in order to avoid raising the real-property tax rate. Even if the City Council sets a 6.9 percent increase for the school, an option that would require city leaders to find $9 million in new revenue, the schools would still have to slash $8.2 million from Perry's preliminary forecast.

"A number of budget factors such as the governor's budget, actions by the General Assembly, natural disasters, changes in state/federal aid, unfunded mandates or changes in the world markets can all have major financial impact on the school system," Perry wrote in the introduction to her forecast. "Over the course of the next seven weeks, I will be analyzing the entire budget for possible efficiencies and reductions as the superintendent's proposed FY 2008 budget is developed. The School Board will then have six weeks to review the proposed FY 2008 budget and make any adjustments it feels necessary."