After more than a year of long-range sniping, Arlington's two governing bodies -- the County Board and the school board -- got together last week for an old-fashioned, face-to-face, fracas.
"I've been trying to communicate with this school board for five years," complained County Board Chairman Walter Frankland during one of the stormier moments at last week's session to adopt Arlington's $180 million budget.
"You can communicate with me right now," retorted Richard Barton, one of the four Democratic-backed school board members who took turns scolding the three Republican-backed County Board members for cutting school funds. "I'm ready to go."
"Come on then," said Frankland.
The verbal sparring, before 130 partisan and often vocal spectators who packed the County Board room and spilled into a hallway, centered on the school board's proposed 10.5 percent pay raise for school employes. The County Board already had announced that the rest of the county employes would receive no more than an 8.5 percent salary increase. The 2 percent difference amounted to approximately $1 million in the school budget. And more than a few political points.
"Past policy has been that we try to have pay treatment equal for both county and school employes," said Frankland, explaining why he voted to fund the school budget at a level that would limit pay raises to 8.5 percent.
But school board member Mary Margaret Whipple had a different solution. She suggested that instead of cutting school salaries, the board raise county salaries to make a match.
"The moeny is there . . . I can only conclude that the County Board is primarily interested in suppressing public employe salaries," said Whipple as the overwhelmingly pro-school crowd cheered.
The budget fight was the latest battle in a war between the two boards that began when Frankland was elected to the County Board in 1975. But last week's bout may have been the last major one that will be waged along party lines for at least a few years.
When two new school board members are sworn in July 1 to replace Whipple and Barton, the board will have a majority of Republican-appointed members for the first time in a dozen years.
Ann Broder, the current chairman, is up for reappointment next spring -- and is likely to be replaced. And Superintendent Larry Cuban is expected to accept another job before his contract expires next spring.
Given that background, last week's budget fight was something of a last stand for Democrats. And Republicans privately accused the Democrats of using the salary proposal as a final dig, to create discontent among non-school employes.
The school board majority and Superintendent Cuban said even the 10.5 percent salary increase was not "adequate" in the face of double digit inflation. They accused the County Board of trying to dictate decisions for the school board and of failing to communicate on the final, and crucial, budget decisions affecting the school system.
Characterizing the school board as "deeply disturbed" over the budget cuts, Whipple noted: "It is particularly distressing because the County Board has radically changed its position from the time of its work session with the school board on the budget."
At that meeting, in April 26, the County Board was still working with the 9.5 percent salary increase proposed for non-school employes by County Manager W. Vernon Ford. As a result, the difference in pay proposals along with a few other related items amounted to $640,000.
At a later meeting, not attended by any school board members, the County Board rejected Ford's pay proposal for a figure 1 percent lower, or 8.5 percent. Last week, school board members complained that they were not formally notified of either the meeting or the decision to ask for $600,000 more in school budget cuts.
"All our meetings are open to the public," said Republican-backed County Board member Dorothy Grotos. "If they had wanted to be at our session they could have been there."
But school officials answered that the school board was having its own, bi-weekly meeting that same night, which made attendance at the County Board session impossible.
Under Virginia law, the County Board cannot dictate how the school board spends the $39.9 million budget approved by the county last week for the next fiscal year. So the school board could still give its employes a 9.5 or 10.5 percent pay raise by cutting money now budgeted for other school programs.
"I'm sure we will examine a list of various options and I'm sure some of those lists will include both a 9.5 and a 10.5 percent increase," said Chairman Broder.
Majorie Sale McCreery, spokesperson for the Arlington Education Association which represents 90 percent of the county's 1,000 teachers, said, "There's no question the County Board is trying to assure themselves the school board will not give a different salary adjustment . . . . But I think it's time the school employes got a fair shake. If the programs have go to, they have go to."