Fresh out of a contentious approval by the School Board, Arlington Public Schools’ proposed budget had its County Board debut. In a joint School Board-County Board work session on April 6, elected officials looked over the approved budgets and compared cuts.
School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen said some of the biggest cuts for schools were coming to the school’s planning. With $4.77 million in reductions, Kanninen said the schools will see class size increases for grades 4 through 12, a reduction in the Montessori program and foreign language in elementary schools, and cuts to clerical offices at a high school level. A further $1.3 million in reductions came from postponing “Growth and Whole Child Initiatives” and $1.8 million in teaching reductions.
Among those, Kanninen said the hardest was decision to cut paid parental leave.
“Arlington was the first jurisdiction in Virginia to have paid parental leave,” said Kanninen. “It’s difficult to sustain that. It’s a very painful thing to cut.”
But moments later, a review of the County Board budget showed a similar strain. According to County Manager Mark Schwartz, the county will face $8.4 million in total reductions to ongoing programs. Some of this involves reductions and eliminations of county offices, like $483,238 for the elimination of the Office of Community Health and $825,584 to reduce the county’s Employment Services. Others are reductions in county services, like $356,771 to eliminate two ART bus routes and $500,000 to scale back the Lee Highway Planning Process, a move Schwartz says has faced stiff opposition from local neighbors.
“As you can see from the manager’s presentation, you’re not walking that route alone,” said County Board member Christian Dorsey. “We thank you for that. Understand that this is a reality that exists in Arlington and elsewhere. It’s important to note that there is still growth in the student budget.”
Dorsey noted that a 3.5 percent increase in the the county transfer to schools accounted for enrollment growth and a good percentage of the expected pay increases for staff. But School Board member Nancy Van Doren, who was the lone vote against the school budget at the previous night’s meeting, said the budget is insufficient to meet the needs of the schools.
“I believe we do need to bring you needs based budget,” said Van Doren. “We need $4.7 million. I believe we are on a very dangerous path of eroding the quality of education that we have a hallmark of in this community, part of the driver of our economic self sufficiency. When we make these kinds of cuts, falls more heavily on our neighborhood schools… That is beginning down a path of inequity.”
Van Doren explained that optional schools can always maintain their student populations at certain quotas, while neighborhood schools do not have the option of turning students away. Van Doren also noted that the schools will be using half of their reserves to fund needs in the FY 2019 budget.
“That’s not sustainable,” said Van Doren. “We need to reconsider revenue sharing principles and investment in schools.”
While it’s unlikely for Arlington Schools to receive more than they requested from a County Board that has already established a no tax-rate increase, Van Doren’s comments did find some agreement on the County Board.
“Van Doren summarized very ably the history of this county and community and what makes us strong,” said County Board member Erik Gutshall. “This budget is not as tough as next year’s will be and that’s a sobering thought .… We’re fighting over crumbs, and I’m not sure that’s where we want to be on these critical issues. [We face] fundamental structure problems on local basis, also degradation of services for support for most vulnerable at a national level that all fall down on us. We have to really be eyes wide open to what’s coming in front of us.”
The County Budget is set for approval on April 21. The final School Board budget will be adopted on May 3.