By Carla Branch and James Cullum
On Tuesday night, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to instruct City Manager Jim Hartmann to cut the city’s operating budget by 3.56 percent and to consider raising the real estate tax rate by five cents for fiscal year 2010.
In previous years, Council set budget targets for the city manager. When members voted to ignore those targets, Council set goals. This year, the term is “guidance”. “We are indicating to the city manager that, according to the information we have at this time, this is where we believe the FY 2010 budget should be. By February, when he presents his proposal to us, things could have changed. By April when we adopt the budget, they could have changed even more and that could mean we can add things to the budget or maybe it will mean that we have to decrease spending even further,” said Mayor Bill Euille.
Hartmann, who has already implemented $10.5 million in cuts this year, has been asked to cut next year’s spending on the city side by 4.3 percent. That will include $2 million in cuts that can be implemented in February when he presents his budget and carried forward into FY 2010. Spending on capital projects in FY 2010 will be limited to the new public safety center, current contractual obligations that would cause significant financial loss if cancelled, maintenance of existing infrastructure or emergencies and projects that may be funded using prior year unallocated balances.
Council has given Hartmann the option to ad $3.2 million in additional funding for capital projects by adding 1 cent to the real estate tax rate and designating that money for this purpose. “I am certainly going to vote for this resolution, but want to express, once again, my objection to set-asides,” said Councilman Paul Smedberg. “This sets a terrible precedent, because what is to prevent some other department from asking for the same consideration?”
Because of unprecedented revenue declines, Council also suggested that Hartmann consider a real estate tax rate increase of five cents to pay for services at the reduced level. This means that the average homeowner in Alexandria will not see an increase in their real estate tax bill from the taxes assessed in calendar year 2009. “This could change but based on what we know now, we are looking at a five cent rate increase,” Euille said.
Hartmann has already warned of staff and service cuts and is not planning for a Market Rate Adjustment to staff salaries. “We have some extreme financial challenges as we face the most significant revenue shortfall in decades. We will do our best to minimize the impact of reductions on city employees and work creatively and collaboratively to mitigate the constraints in delivering city services,” Hartmann said. “Maintaining infrastructure, public safety and meeting the needs of our most vulnerable residents will remain our top priority during these tough times.”
Schools Face Budget Cuts, Rising Enrollment
The City Council’s adopted resolution also calls for a two-percent decrease in funding for the Alexandria City Public School system. New Superintendent, Dr. Morton Sherman, is planning for cuts of between 1.1 percent and 1.4 percent. Council’s resolution would require an additional $1 million in cuts from the school system, which comprises about one third of the City’s entire budget.
“I really would like to understand how you arrived at the two percent number,” said School Board Member Arthur Peabody at a joint work session of the School Board and City Council on Monday night. “Did a lot of financial analysis go into this number or is it something that you pulled out of the air?
“The superintendent has gone a long way to reducing our spending at a time when our student enrollment is increasing, something I have never seen in my time on the Board. I would think Council would be dancing in the street at the cooperation between the school and city staff and administration and I am not certain that we can do anymore,” Peabody said.
Councilman Justin Wilson responded to Peabody’s question. “Dr. Sherman indicated to us that he could cut 1.4 percent from the school budget and since we are asking a lot from the city manager, we asked a little more from the school system,” Wilson said.
Sherman said that he would do his best to meet Council’s goals but, “I will not make any recommendation that will do harm to the education of any child in the Alexandria City Public School system,” he said.
The superintendent is looking at a variety of ways to increase the number of classrooms and utilize existing staff more efficiently. “We are evaluating every program and moving forward with those that are having a positive impact on student achievement,” Sherman said. “It is our goal and, indeed the goal of everyone in this room, for every student to meet or exceed state and national standards. Currently, the only group that is meeting or exceeding those standards is white students and that is unacceptable.”
The School Board has not seen specifics from Sherman. He will present his proposed budget to them on Jan. 8. “Dr. Sherman has talked with Board members individually and we are all well aware of the principles on which he is basing his budget decisions,” said Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts. “We will begin specific discussions with him after he presents his budget and before we present it to the city manager. We understand that these are difficult financial times for everyone and we will continue to work closely with city staff and members of Council as we move forward.”
According to the U. S. Department of Education, the state share of revenues for public elementary and secondary schools generally grew from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, while the local share declined during this same time period. This pattern changed in the late 1980s, when the local share began to increase at the same time the state share decreased. Between 1986-87 and 1993-94, the state share declined from 49.7 percent to 45.2 percent, while the local share rose from 43.9 percent to 47.8 percent. Between 1993-94 and 2000-01, the state share rose again to 49.7 percent, the highest share since 1986-87, but declined every school year afterward until 2004-05 when the state share was 46.9 percent. Between 1994-95 and 2004-05, the federal share of revenues rose to 9.2 percent and the local share declined to 44 percent.
After adjustment for inflation, current expenditures per student in fall enrollment in public schools rose during the 1980s, remained stable during the first part of the 1990s, and rose again between 1993-94 and 2003-04. There was an increase of 37 percent from 1980-81 to 1990-91; an increase of less than one percent from 1990-91 to 1994-95; and an increase of 23 percent from 1994-95 to 2004-05. In 2004-05, current expenditures per student in fall enrollment were $8,701 in unadjusted dollars. In 2004-05, 55 percent of students in public schools were transported at public expense at a cost of $692 per pupil, also in unadjusted dollars, according to the U. S. Department of Education.
In 2004, the cost per pupil in the Alexandria City Public School system was $12, 198, more than 50 percent higher than the national average. That cost has risen every year since 2004: 2005, $13,670; 2006, $15,871; 2007, $17,700 and in 2008, $19,341, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education. This is an increase of just over 45 percent during this period. At the same time, the student population declined: 2004, 10,922; 2005, 10,870; 2006, 10,150. Student enrollment began to increase in 2007 and has continued to climb, increasing to 11,225 this year. This is an increase of roughly seven percent over last year’s student enrollment of 10,557.
ACPS Calendar Years 2004-2006
Washington Area Board of Education
The Washington Area Boards of Education guide is a statistical report prepared annually which compares area school districts’ salaries, budget, cost per pupil, and class sizes. It is compiled by Fairfax County Schools.
Alexandria City FY 2007 Approved Operating Budget
See “Revenue Summary”