The School Board held a lengthy work session on the Superintendent's proposed budget last week. The School Board Chair, Sheryl Gorsuch, was cautionary in her comments about the session in which some members flirted with additional staff compensation and restoring weeks of intercession instruction at Samuel Tucker Elementary School and Mt. Vernon Community School, two schools with modified calendars.
Caution is clearly in order here. As the Chair pointed out this is a difficult budget year. Requirements for additional contributions to the Virginia Retirement System, health insurance cost increases, increasing enrollment and tight revenue projections will provide modest increases without a major boost to real estate taxes. There are local elections in November. This is hardly the year to be spending wildly.
Alexandria, for example, is the only public school system in the region that has given staff salary increases in each of the past 4 years. This has been a huge benefit for school staff. The Superintendent again proposes to implement a salary step midway through the year. Doing more hardly looks prudent.
The Superintendent's budget also proposes reducing intercession instruction at the modified calendar schools from 5 weeks total to 3 weeks total. He uses these savings to fund part of the expansion of 3 weeks additional instructional time for each of the remaining 11 elementary schools. We understand the "trauma" of changing existing schedules but difficult times require change and difficult decisions.
There are other changes in the budget that need to be examined. Special Education may or may not be receiving cuts. Certainly a number of positions are being eliminated at some schools. The school district has been out of compliance with Special Education guidelines for years. Recently the Governor of Virginia signed a settlement with the Federal Government over Special Education issues. The School Board must look at what is being done in this area carefully to insure that Alexandria does not move backward in dealing with the requirements of special education students.
The Superintendent has also increased the staffing of his own office in this budget. In tight budget times this means fewer resources for the schools. Is this really needed? The Superintendent receives a very large compensation package and now he is moving to have a very large personal staff. Will any of this improve the achievement of our students which is the bottom line test for new expenditures?
The Schools have been rocked by charges of bad management in Capital Programs. The independent audit results have not yet been released and they were originally due last year. In the interim, another Senior Finance Office employee has resigned amidst charges of harassment and mismanagement of the department. Why should citizens trust the schools with more money when there are serious questions about how they have handled the money they have?
One of the serious issues in Virginia school finance is that School Boards do not have taxing authority. Therefore they tend to be elected or appointed from activists in the school community rather than from among citizens at large. Alexandria exemplifies this very well as all but one of the current board members has or had when originally elected children in the system. As a result, Board Members are sensitive to pressure, particularly when it comes to their neighborhood schools. Getting resources for the school system becomes more important than managing the school system.
We urge the Board to follow their Chair's example and exercise caution. There are many pent up demands for money in the community. This is not the year to try to satisfy them.