Alexandria School Superintendent Herbert Berg has proposed a spending plan for next year that focuses on a central theme in Virginia public schools: making sure enough students pass a new battery of academic tests so that schools don't lose their accreditation.
Berg's budget is almost $120 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1--a 6.7 percent increase over the current budget. That increase includes $347,000 for schools that need to increase academic achievement and about $700,000 for the new Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School, which opens next fall as the first new school built in Alexandria in more than 30 years.
Also included is about $809,000 for two magnet programs--a visual- and performing-arts program at Jefferson-Houston Elementary and one with an academic focus for Lyles-Crouch Elementary.
"The budget is a way to deliver accredited schools," Berg said. "We have to really stay focused on improving student achievement."
Last year, fewer than 8 percent of Virginia schools met the new state bench marks on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, none in Alexandria. The state school board plans to withdraw accreditation from any public school where fewer than 70 percent of the students pass a battery of new tests by 2007.
Many educators predict that schools with large numbers of low-income and immigrant children--such as Alexandria's--have little chance of reaching the 70 percent mark, even in seven years. The SOL tests in English, mathematics, social studies and science are given in the third, fifth and eighth grades and in high school. Beginning in 2004, students who fail to pass the required high school SOL tests will not receive diplomas.
It is unfortunate that the new budget does not provide a salary increase for veteran teachers at the top of the salary scale, said Marshall Cook, president of the Education Association of Alexandria, the union that represents about 825 of the system's 1,100 teachers.
"Overall, the budget is fair," Cook said. "But there is a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers because of the SOLs. In general, in this economy there is not enough money in teaching to attract new teachers."
Berg said the proposed budget includes 18 additional elementary school teachers, including three needed because of changing school boundaries. In addition, Berg wants to hire 37 more teachers, including those needed for the two new elementary magnet programs and other needs.
Last year, the Alexandria School Board made sweeping changes in school boundaries that will move many families from their current schools. The citywide boundary shifts, which take effect in the fall, largely are the result of the construction of Tucker Elementary School in the city's west end and from school crowding in northeastern and western Alexandria. The redistricting has brought heated objections from some parents who fear that if the two magnet programs at two east-end elementary schools don't get enough funding, city schools will become racially "resegregated."
"The new budget is wholly insufficient with regard to [magnet] schools," said Victor M. Glasberg, of the Coalition for Fairness in Education, a group of parents and community activists who have questioned the redistricting and have been critical of the magnet programs as part of that plan.
But if the city is going to try magnet programs, they argue, they must be funded generously.
"Some of what we have is the natural uncertainty with redistricting," Berg said. "I believe our financial commitment here is going to deliver really good schools. Over the years, if we need more emphasis or increases, we will move with that."
The new focus programs will include one part-time and three full-time teachers for visual- and performing-arts classes at Jefferson-Houston; funding for 12 after-school programs; and money to build a mirrored dance room, an art room with sinks and a drama room with a portable stage and other items.
Lyles-Crouch, which is slated to have a traditional academic magnet program, would have two more teachers to reduce class size.
Berg and other board members said they would give the budget for the magnet programs further study.
"There is funding for the [magnet] schools, and they should be well funded," said board member V. Rodger Digilio. "We still want to take a lot more time and look at every aspect of this."
Berg said he was proud of the additional funding set aside to help students in the vast majority of the city's schools do better academically. Extra earmarked funds range from $89,520 slated for William Ramsay Elementary to $7,280 for Douglas MacArthur Elementary.
"The bottom line is student achievement," Berg said.
Councilwoman Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) said everyone wants to study the budget carefully. "We want to remain very competitive with our [neighboring] jurisdictions," she said. "I think that this is going to be a really long, sobering budget session, where we are going to have a look at everything."