‘Broken Systems’ in Alexandria?

Council, School Board meeting reviews budget process challenges.

The City Council and School Board’s only meeting together during the budget season, held March 6, addressed overarching process questions, though little in the way of specific planned spending.

PRIVATIZING CUSTODIANS: PLANNING DISCONTINUITY?

The elected officials spent most of their time together discussing the schools’ planned privatization of custodians, which would shave about $1 million off the schools’ budget.

Dr. Gregory Hutchings, the schools superintendent, wants to outsource about 30 custodial jobs to a private contractor. He says the plan means to improve cleanliness- and management-related efficiency. Though others see cost savings as a driver.

In any case, the plan raised doubts about the integrity of the process behind it.

Hutchings’ plan would accelerate a 2007 School Board decision to privatize custodial jobs through “attrition” (retirement, etc.) of existing employees. But implementation of that decision over the years has been haphazard

“On reflection, there really hasn’t been a real attrition effort,” said School Board member Chris Suarez. “We actually hired more custodians” after the 2007 decision to dwindle their numbers.

“There really was no plan” specified in 2007, said School Board Chair Cindy Anderson. “I don’t think anyone presented to the … [School] Board at the time how long this [attrition] would take and what the pros and cons were. … Which is why it didn’t translate well over time.”

“ACPS [Alexandria City Public Schools] has not had processes and procedures in place for a lot of things for a long time,” said School Board member Meagan Alderton. “This organization has been very dysfunctional. … We can’t keep having these broken systems at ACPS, it’s our M.O.”

“If there was no plan, and it’s not a good plan, why go forward with it?” said Councilman Canek Aguirre. He thinks the city and schools “have a problem with continuity” given personnel turnover, resulting in loss of institutional knowledge and memory. He wants “structure in place so that this isn’t occurring.”

“We’ve had four superintendents in the last five years. The instability of ACPS is an institutional failure. I really think that this board needs to step in and stabilize this organization,” said Suarez.

FUNDING/SPENDING PARAMETERS?

Aguirre asked whether, if the city gave extra money to “match the gap,” the schools might retain the custodians. But council only transfers a lump sum, which the School Board can spend however it wants. So nothing guarantees the schools would spend any extra money from the city on custodians, said Councilman John Chapman.

Hutchings confirmed this. Even if council provided more funding, he said he’d still recommend custodial outsourcing and that extra money go instead toward accelerating textbook replacement.

Though council could impose more stricture if it wanted to. Rather than one lump sum, state law would allow the city to appropriate money to the schools under nine separate “major classifications:” instruction; administration, attendance and health; pupil transportation; operation and maintenance; school food services and other non-instructional operations; facilities; debt and fund transfers; technology; contingency reserves.

Mayor Justin Wilson doesn’t want to move to funding by major categories. He says council lacks the time adequately to scrutinize both the city and schools’ budgetary needs to that level of detail.

Conversely, Chapman said: “We could give it in pots. The past council did not want to, and city staff in the past has not been supportive of this method. I plan to try again to push it, but not until after the budget season, so that new members on both City Council and School Board can see the limitations of our current method.”

POOR CITY-SCHOOLS STREAMLINING?

The School Board’s adopted budgets in the winter serve as funding requests to council, ideally via the city manager. City Manager Mark Jinks proposed his budget on Feb. 19, including “full funding for the Superintendent’s request for the [ACPS] operating budget.” Technically, only the School Board, through legislative action, makes funding requests. But the School Board didn’t adopt its operating budget until Feb. 21.

“When the city manager’s budget is rolled out in that way, … it kind of interferes with our deliberative process as a School Board,” said Rief. She asked that the manager not say he’s fully funded the schools’ ask before the School Board has officially made its ask.

Mayor Justin Wilson responded: “Literally every single year I have made the ask that the School Board adopt their operating budget in advance of the presentation of the city manager’s proposed budget. … The [current sequencing] makes the [School] Board, if not irrelevant, less relevant certainly, during the budget process. I would continue to urge the board to come up with a scheduling … to allow the manager to take into account the deliberations of the board.”

Moreover, “This manager proposed a budget that increased the operating transfer to the Alexandria City Public Schools by 3.8 percent. The remainder of the city budget is growing by 0.6 percent. That is a dramatic disparity, and quite frankly without precedent in recent years,” he said. “A good chunk of [funding growth for schools] also came at the expense of some very critical priorities on [the council’s] side, including many priorities that serve the same kids that the Alexandria City Public Schools serve.”

Rief later said she’d “like to see the schools and city align the roll-out of our proposed budgets next year.”

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