By Rodger Digilio
October 23, 2008
Dr. Morton Sherman, Alexandria’s new School Superintendent, will face his first public test when he presents his budget for FY 2010 to the School Board in December. This is certainly not an easy year for budgeting in the face of massive revenue shortfalls at the state and local levels. Dr. Sherman will have to move through many obstacles.
The school budgeting process in Virginia is a little arcane. First, the Superintendent is charged under state law with producing a budget that meets the needs of the school district. Then the school board is supposed to work it over to make it fit ability of the community to finance it. Then it goes to a city council or board of supervisors who are supposed to fund it. This is a messy process at best, and the move to elected school boards has made it more so.
Most places that have elected school boards have funding authority vested in the board. They set the school tax rate and are accountable to the electorate for it. Not so in Virginia where the local council or supervisors set the rate. School Board members, who tend to be elected largely by parents, often perceive their job as maximizing the money they can obtain for the school system, rather than fitting the needs of the system in with the ability of the community to finance them. One could argue that the past two boards in Alexandria have had that attitude. One could also argue that city council in the era of rapid revenue growth has been quick to shower the schools with money.
The fiscal constraints this year are obvious but, equally important, is the assumption about the growth of the system. The growth assumptions of the system for the current year were wrong. Many more kids showed up then were projected. Knowing who they are and why they appeared might help with future planning, but we have seen no study yet that would throw light on these questions.
A second issue is the position of the state. The governor and legislature are trying to protect school funding but until the extent of the revenue shortfall is known, the state’s commitment must be considered tentative.
Although Dr. Sherman is charged with coming up with the budget, there is nothing to prevent some discussion with the school board about the issues. In fact, the school’s budget office has prepared three broad alternatives. Leaving aside the question of the legality of the school board endorsing an alternative now, the three alternatives are really helpful only for illustrative purposes. The first continues existing programs and provides no staff salary adjustments. The second cuts $3 million of existing programs and provides staff with step increases and a 1.5% salary increase. The third goes all out with no program cuts and staff increases.
It seems pretty unreasonable that parents would support program cuts to give what is perceived in the community as a highly paid staff more salary increases in a recession. The board, with council’s help, has funded serious salary increases over the past few years.
It also seems pretty unreasonable that there are not some programs that could be cut. The schools are flush with staff that were easy additions in the era of plenty. Now an era of scarcity should force a hard look. This is particularly true if enrollment will continue to increase at the rates shown. In particular, if Dr. Sherman improves the performance of the middle schools, that alone could lead to enrollment growth.
In the past, the city has gotten through tough times by restricting staff salary increases. It is very difficult not to provide step increases. Knocking people off their planned career progression creates many negative incentives. Cost of living adjustments, on the other hand, are different.
The recessionary environment has already dropped the price of oil substantially. It is likely that other commodities will follow suit. Inflation, itself should decline sharply. At the same time jobs with the school system are relatively safe in this time and have excellent benefits. Other local jurisdictions are hard-pressed and unlikely to increase salaries.
It is a time for local government employees to count their blessings and not be greedy. We would hope that this year there would be a more sophisticated look at the budget by the superintendent and his staff and the school board itself. It is a critical year, and everyone has to work together to make the process come out for the best for the children and not just for the adults who teach them and manage the system. Dr. Sherman will have to lead this march, and the measure of his leadership will be taken by the community.