Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith yesterday proposed a $363.2 million budget for fiscal 2006 that includes adding preschool classes, upgrading computers and other equipment and raising teachers' salaries by 8.1 percent.
The proposal reflects a relatively low 1.4 percent increase over the current budget, which was 7.8 percent higher than the previous year's.
Smith's budget plan concentrates on maintaining and shoring up programs that he said have helped move the district toward its two strategic goals: raising pass rates on the state Standards of Learning tests and narrowing the achievement gap between whites and some ethnic and racial minorities.
In the past six years in Arlington County, the overall SOL pass rate has risen from 65 percent to 86 percent. The most dramatic increases have been among blacks, whose pass rate went from 37 percent to 70 percent, and Hispanics, whose pass rate went from 47 percent to 75 percent.
Smith attributed much of the rise to the fact that Arlington has radically expanded its pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, from two in 1998, when SOL testing began, to 23 this year. "I think that this is one of the most important things that we're doing," he said. "For students who don't have those services, we've seen the gap is already there when they enter kindergarten."
The budget proposes $525,000 for three additional pre-K classes and other preschool services.
The bulk of the budget -- 78.5 percent -- is for staff salaries and benefits. It would add 12.5 positions, cut 40 other positions and give an 8.1 percent salary increase to all teachers. It also would raise base pay for a first-year teacher with a master's degree from $41,616 to $45,000 and accelerate the rate of regular cost-of-living adjustment raises.
Other initiatives include meeting additional costs related to requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, purchasing new technical equipment and software and adding freshman girls volleyball and field hockey teams at all three high schools.
School Board Vice Chairman David M. Foster called the budget a "reasonable proposal" and said the teacher raises were important at a time when nearby districts such as Loudoun County's were offering competitive packages.
But board member Elaine S. Furlow said she disapproved of such high raises when they are unrelated to job evaluations. She added that at a time of declining enrollment, she would like to see more money spent on attracting students to Arlington schools, in particular by offering more preschool classes. "We have enough people on waiting lists to offer five to seven new Montessori classes, and we have the space," she said, adding that she considered that more important than purchasing computer equipment. "I'd like us to focus more on the human side and less on the equipment side."
Foster said he was glad to see a reserve set aside for capital expenses at a time when construction costs are rising precipitously. Arlington is about to embark on an $80 million reconstruction of Washington-Lee High School, funded by recently approved bond issues, and Yorktown High School plans an extensive renovation if voters approve a bond issue next year.