‘Mediocrity Has Been Acceptable’ in Alexandria

‘Mediocrity Has Been Acceptable’ in Alexandria

ACPS budget grows, expected to grow more next year, as higher quality sought.

The School Board unanimously adopted its budgets for FY 2020 last week, though Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings says next year may bring cost increases as he enforces higher standards.

The FY 2020 “combined funds” expenditure budget weighs in at $311 million, up $12 million (4 percent) over last year. That includes three components, the largest of which is an operating expenditure budget of $285 million, up $11 million (4 percent) over last year. Of that amount, 88 percent goes to employee salaries and benefits. The school system will fund is operating budget with $232 million from the city, up $8 million (4 percent) over last year; $48 million from the state; a smattering of federal and other local monies; and drawing down $6 million on the school division’s fund balance.

The other components include a $15 million “grants and special projects” budget and an $11 million “school nutrition” budget. Both use primarily state and/or federal money and changed little compared to last year.

The schools’ 10-year FY 2020-2029 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) weighs in at $479 million. For the 9 years overlapping last year’s CIP, that’s up $21 million (5 percent). The full amounts will come from the city, mostly as a direct cash transfer, some as reserved bond/cash capacity.

Reiterating past cautions, Hutchings thinks next year’s budget cycle will see capital costs climb.

School division COO Mignon Anthony says the number of staff dedicated to facilities and operations shrunk by a factor of three over the past 15 years. This in turn has fed a culture of just getting by.

“I think there is something that we have to grow back into,” she said. “I think that when the staff degraded over the years it also just made it very difficult for everybody to keep up. I’m not making excuses … When I came here, I felt like everyone was working to survive. When you get a culture of that — when people are just working to survive — you get resistance when you try to change them and you try to create something that really works. We’re working through it. I think people have excitement now, and all. But it’s not easy because habits die hard. Getting people to be responsive and to do some of the things that we’ve challenged them to do — it’s foreign, but we’re in the middle of changing that.”

Hutchings agreed, saying of some school staff and contractors: “I’m sorry, we have had low expectations in [Alexandria City Public Schools], and we just have to own it. … Mediocrity has been acceptable. The pushback that Ms. Anthony and I receive quite often is that now we’re setting high expectations. My bar is extremely high, for myself and for everybody else. It’s hard if you haven’t really had the expectation of cutting grass; or having flowers that bloom in the spring; or having hallways that have floors that are waxed; or having trash cans that are emptied. … For that to be a phone call that I receive from parents and from community members is a little appalling, and it’s embarrassing as a superintendent sometimes, because I feel that those are basic expectations. We’re not a school division where we have zero dollars. We’re one of the wealthiest cities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. So there’s no excuse that we’re not cutting grass; or we have weeds in every school; or it takes a year for the playground get fixed; or water intrusion; or mold. The list goes on and on.”

A new round of detailed facilities condition assessments, currently underway, and rising construction and labor costs could also contribute to future upward cost revisions.

“I think we need more to do right by our kids,” said School Board member Christopher Suarez.