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Votes

Missing the Mark

School Board votes for a budget that’s $7.3 million over the City Council’s target.

A deeply divided School Board passed a $191.3-million budget last week, with three members voting against the motion for passage and one abstaining from participation. The vote took place after a contentious six-hour work session in which newly elected board members clashed with each other until after 1 a.m. on Jan. 31. With their end-of-the-month deadline fast approaching, last-minute changes were still taking place moments before the final vote.

“The process of democracy is sometimes messy,” said Arthur Peabody, who became chairman of the new School Board seven months ago. “And I think we have seen how messy the process of democracy can be.”

The School Board’s budget — lacking the typical unanimous consent of the city’s education community — now heads to City Hall, where it is certain to receive a chilly reception. In its final form, the school division’s budget requests a $162.3-million appropriation from the city government. That’s $7.3 million more than the target of $155 million that City Council members approved in November.

“I would have preferred that they would have passed a budget that was closer to the target,” said Mayor Bill Euille, who served on the city’s School Board in the 1970s and 1980s. “It certainly was not a good-faith effort to meet the target set by City Council.”

Last year, the first year in which budget targets were used, the City Council set a target range of $149.9 million to $152.8 million. The School Board’s budget came in under the high target with a request of $152.2 million. Despite the fact that board members submitted a request that was under the high target, the City Council still cut $2.3 million from their budget — appropriating $149.9 million.

This year’s target of $155 million was exceeded significantly in December, when Superintendent Rebecca Perry submitted a recommendation for a $162.6 million appropriation from the city. Last month, the School Board was able to reduce that figure by $414,200. But even then, the School Board’s budget was a 8-percent increase when the target was for a 3-percent increase.

“Of course, some of you are asking why we couldn’t have cut more,” said Peabody shortly before voting for the budget. “But the truth is that many of these costs are simply out of our control.”

THE THREE MEMBERS who voted against the budget had various reasons for their opposition. Vice Chairwoman Blanche Maness said that she thought the budget cut too many classroom positions. After the vote, she expressed her disappointment in the reduction of funds for at-risk students as well as the elimination of paraprofessionals, physical-education teachers and an academic counselor for athletes.

“I think these cuts will negatively impact student achievement,” said Maness. “I don’t want to make cuts that would hurt students.”

Board member Yvonne Folkerts, on the other hand, said that she didn’t think enough cuts were made.

“Our budget didn’t meet the target,” said Folkerts, who is chairwoman of the board’s budget committee. “I think it’s our job to make a good faith effort to meet that target. And we didn’t do that.”

Board member Scott Newhsam agreed that he would have preferred a budget that came closer to the city’s target. To express his frustration with this year’s budget process, he read aloud from a manual published by the Virginia School Board Association about the proper relationship between School Board members and City Council members.

“If a school board has the spirit of trying ‘to get something out of them’ and a governing body of trying to ‘keep something from’ or to ‘hold down’ a school board, each is in the wrong,” said the manual. “There should never be any occasion for antagonism between them.”

Newsham said that this has not been the case with the budget that was up for adoption last week.

“A key element is that we should consider the needs of the schools in connection with the needs of all the other public business in the county or city and make appropriations accordingly,” said Newsham. “I don't believe our budget process, or the document that I was being asked to vote on, met that standard and I voted against the budget document.”

Claire Eberwein, who abstained from voting, said that she was disappointed with the budget documents provided by the division’s staff members. She said that her questions weren’t answered promptly and that the budget document itself was incomplete and problematic.

“It has a lot of extraneous information that isn’t pertinent to the budget process,” she said after the vote. “It is lacking in the kind of information that we need to make budget decisions with something other than an axe.”

THE PROCESS LEADING to the final vote last week was initiated in December when the superintendent released her proposal — a $191.5-million budget that represented a 5.2-percent increase over last year's budget. It included $710,848 for a new initiative Perry called “Literacy for the 21st Century,” which funded new literacy coaches, online reading materials and an intervention program to help the city’s most challenged students. It also included a $201,192 proposal to improve science instruction and a $117,766 plan to increase the rigor at Alexandria’s two middle schools.

But Perry’s budget also made several controversial cuts. It eliminated a $25,000 program that helps low-income students prepare for college known as “Project Discovery.” That funding was restored — and, in fact, doubled — by School Board members after scores of people came to a public hearing to protest the elimination of the program. Perry’s budget also eliminated a divisionwide parent liaison position and reduced funding for refreshments at receptions — both cuts that were later restored by the School Board.

“I want everybody to understand that this is a work in progress,” said Peabody toward the conclusion of the meeting. “I understand that this is not the budget that everyone sought. But this is a time for us to come together and support this budget.”