Audit Alexandria's Schools

I recently sat through three laborious days at the Alexandria School Board's annual retreat.

The board discussed a number of important issues, but the one that got my full attention was the governor's audit. For seven years, I have asked the school system to perform an audit to examine its efficiency and effectiveness. When your annual spending per student reaches $17,350, it should trigger some response from not only the City Council, which controls the school system's purse strings, but from the citizens who have to foot this large expense. Approximately one-third of the city's budget is school-related, and you wonder why your real property tax rates continue to be high. For comparison purposes, average spending per student in the rest of Virginia and nationally is approximately $8,000, or less than half of what Alexandria spends.

How much of what we spend in Alexandria actually ends up in the classroom? There is a movement by a number of states to enact legislation that requires school systems to spend no less than 65 percent of their budgets in the classrooms. The National Center for Education Statistics has defined classroom spending as including teacher salaries, classroom supplies, instructional aids, field trips and tuition paid to other schools.

During the retreat, School Board members discussed whether Alexandria ought to allow the state to come in and conduct a governor's audit of the schools. The school system would be required to pay 25 percent of the cost of the efficiency review. To date, eight Virginia school systems have undergone the audit. As a part of that review, the following functions and operations are examined: division organization and management; personnel and human resources; financial management; purchasing, warehousing and fixed assets; educational service delivery and management; facilities use and management; transportation; and technology management.

One hopes this review would present opportunities for savings.

The major benefits that have emerged from these reviews have been a stronger understanding within pilot communities of how their schools spend tax dollars, and, as a result, a greater trust in what is being done.

Regardless of whether the School Board opts to have a governor's audit or an independent efficiency and effectiveness audit performed by the city, there is a dire need for one or the other. For example, why is it that Alexandria is ranked second in spending local funds for education (81 percent) compared with 13 other peer school divisions throughout the state? The peer school division average is 65 percent. The state is ripping us off. Why? Alexandria not only has the highest cost per pupil in its peer group, but it also has the highest administrative costs per pupil at $727. The peer school average is $345.

As I have shown, there are a number of reasons for the Alexandria school system to be audited. I hope the School Board's budget committee, which will make a recommendation to the full board on whether to go forward with an audit, will come up with the same finding. This major problem needs fixing now.

Townsend A. "Van" Van Fleet

Alexandria