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Letter: Restoring Trust In School System

To the Editor:

Public education funding in Alexandria has long been understood sacrosanct. As a result, when ACPS has sought funding increases from City Council, we’ve acquiesced. While less than 15 percent of all households in Alexandria have children in ACPS, approximately 33 percent of the City’s operating budget is given to schools annually, and Alexandria spends more money per pupil on average than all jurisdictions in our region.

Last year, the School Board made a case for us to do more under the CIP to make ready for the upsurge in the public school population. Though some of us scratched our heads at the enormity of the request, we substantially increased the CIP budget for schools.

While I share the public outrage over apparent malfeasance with ACPS use of CIP dollars and agree that accountability starts at the top, I am also concerned about the schools operating budget. I share Vice Mayor Donley’s sentiment that “[t]he revelations have shaken city council’s confidence in the district” generally. The only problem is while we can issue our opinions we can’t fire Dr. Sherman or make ACPS personnel calls. And the school board’s call for Dr. Sherman’s resignation appears doubtful.

City Council’s actual schools authority is limited to funding from our wallet filled with citizen money. So while Vice Mayor Donley has led the charge of publicly calling for Dr. Sherman’s resignation, I have started down the path of exploring what we can and have an appetite to do through the budget process to try to restore public trust through council broad control over school spending, even though we have no program-determining or line item authority.

The City Attorney has advised that we can decide how much to appropriate for the ACPS budget and how to do it. We can make categorical allocations, pursuant to nine distinct budget areas outlined in the Virginia Statutes. Alternatively, we can continue to make a blanket, one-time allocation for general operating expenses. What council ultimately decides remains to be seen, but I have taken steps to request a budget memorandum to learn where school dollars have been concentrated over the last 5 to 10 years so that we can publicly debate whether the same is consistent with what our community values before passing our budget resolution.

If we choose to categorize monies, if expenditures approach excess of a categorical allocation, it will force ACPS to approach City Council for the authorization of a transfer to a different funding category, thereby allowing us an opportunity to make more transparent, expenditures and how they align with community priorities. I hope this will be a strong consideration and a step in the direction that we can control in restoring public trust. I also hope that we encourage the School Board to re-program existing dollars in a manner that meets community priorities instead of increasing the budget this year.

Alicia Hughes

Alexandria City Councilwoman