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May 6, 2015

Council to adopt $197.8 million school budget for FY16

Funding benchmark helps to address growing enrollment

            One of my top priorities for this year’s City budget was to get a substantial increase in the City’s contribution to the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS), especially to help them address a 3.7 percent increase in school enrollment. 

            I am pleased to report that the City Council will add an additional $1 million for ACPS to the City Manager’s proposed budget when we approve the final FY16 budget on Thursday night.  As a result, the City’s contribution to ACPS will increase by $7 million, or 3.65%, over the FY 2015 funding level ($197.8 million vs. $191.8 million).

            I have long been frustrated by how the City determines its funding of ACPS.  City Council and the School Board sometimes talk past each other during budget discussions and, in the end, the City’s funding level often seems arbitrary.

            I tried to change that process this year.  I got the City staff to set an ACPS funding benchmark:  increase the ACPS budget by the same percentage as the total increase for City agencies, and then add an additional 3.7 percent increase for ACPS programs directly related to enrollment.  The staff calculated that this benchmark would require an addition of $800,000 to the City Manager’s proposed budget for ACPS.

            ACPS then brought forward an alternative benchmark:  keep per-pupil spending constant.  That would mean an additional $1 million beyond the proposed budget. 

            Benchmarks aren’t hard criteria---the ACPS budget is complicated---but at least they gave us some useful tools.  And in the end, the City’s contribution to ACPS will meet these benchmarks and fully address ACPS’ increased enrollment. 

            I am disappointed that this contribution still falls short of the funding request from the School Board.  I know ACPS could do great things with more funding.  City Council has to juggle many competing claims to City funds, however, while City revenues lag behind increased costs. 

            I am also pleased with the prospects for increased cooperation on budget matters between the City and ACPS in the future.  With my encouragement, our budget advisory committees plan to communicate and cooperate more closely.Implementation of the Children and Youth Master Plan will require close cooperation between City and ACPS staff.  I will push hard to increase communication between City Council and the School Board in the budget off-season. 

             Hopefully, next year, decision-making on ACPS funding will be even better.