Arlington Public Schools–the Elephant in the Room

There’s been a lot of contention among Arlington County residents who want to preserve key programs and those who are disgusted that the county’s tax and fee burden is larger than any other jurisdiction in the region, except possibly Falls Church. People want to know why with steadily rising assessments and tax hikes, core county programs are under served.

The elephant in the room is Arlington Public Schools (APS). APS’ 2015 operating budget is projected at $539.4 million. In 2015 the County funds transfer to APS will increase by $19.6 million to $432.2 or almost half the County’s operating budget. Yet that will not be enough to spare a $1.6 million adult high school diploma program at Arlington Mill Community Center.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy says rising enrollments are to blame. It will cost about $10 million to pay for more than 800 additional students and another $17 million to provide a modest 2 percent increase in salaries. Then there is increased debt service and plans to expand the Foreign Language for Elementary Schools (FLES) program and provide IPads for students in 2nd and 6th grade. All these expenditures are worthwhile, but why take it out of the hide of county taxpayers, 80 percent of whom have no students in the system?

The answer is that while APS is good at education, it doesn’t know how to economize. Consider for example, that Fairfax County Schools, which are renowned for their excellence, produce the same academic result for about $5,000 less per pupil per year, $13,472 in Fairfax v. $18,678 in Arlington.

This is because, according to the authoritative Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE) report, Fairfax County has an average secondary class size of 25 as compared with 19.5 in Arlington. Fairfax also pays its teachers about $9k less per year– $65,927 in Fairfax County v. $74,903 in Arlington. But Superintendent Murphy insists that current class size is non-negotiable and salaries must be increased to remain competitive. No matter that a budget tool recently available on the APS website indicated that increasing class size by just one student per class would free up an additional $10 million for other needs.

Others claim that it’s unfair to compare Arlington to Fairfax County, because with eight times the enrollment, Fairfax County can realize economies of scale. If that’s the case, then why doesn’t APS consolidate its capital spending program with the county or contract some of its maintenance operations with DES? This would reduce costs by freeing up overhead. It would eliminate the so-called “silo effect” whereby the County and APS maintain two separate operations centers to perform the same function with the same tax revenue.

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