All four districts are also seeking increased financial compensation for their employees, citing rising private health insurance costs and the need to stay competitive with neighboring school systems. Officials also see the money as a way to thank exhausted teachers and staffers for their efforts throughout an extremely difficult year in education, Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin said at a meeting this month.
“Most importantly, for all employees tonight, I want to . . . emphasize something,” McLaughlin said. “We realize you have worked extremely hard through the pandemic.”
Every one of the four school systems is asking for an increase in funding from last year, although district officials say the amount requested reflects the bare minimum necessary to meet student and staff needs. Some school leaders noted that the pandemic has inflicted a sort of double whammy on educators — depriving schools of long-reliable sources of revenue, while driving up operational costs as school systems scramble to improve remote learning and reach students who have fallen behind or simply stopped showing up.
Arlington Public Schools, which serves 26,000 students, offers a clear case study. Superintendent Francisco Durán said at a school board meeting Thursday that his district’s sources of funding — from the county and from the state — have been imperiled by the pandemic, with county revenue staying flat and state revenue decreasing this year after a long period in which both rose consistently year to year. The county provides nearly 80 percent of the school system’s revenue.
At the same time, Arlington is facing a crisis in student achievement brought on by nearly a year of remote learning. Students are failing their classes at higher rates overall, and children with disabilities, English learners and especially Black and Hispanic English learners struggling most.
“We have several groups of students who aren’t being successful,” Durán said. “We have to make sure we do more for our students with disabilities [and] our English learners.”
Arlington is asking for an additional $42.5 million for its budget this year, bringing the total to $704.4 million, but, as Durán said repeatedly Thursday, it is far from clear whether it will get it. He outlined three tiers of reductions the school district may have to enact if it fails to get the millions they are requesting.
“We have had to make some tough decisions,” Durán said — and if the funding does not come through, he added, they will have to make some more.
Fairfax, whose 180,000 students make it the largest school system in Virginia, is asking for $3.2 billion for next fiscal year, an increase of 2.4 percent from its 2021 budget. A large portion of the money would go toward increasing employee compensation by 3 percent across the board.
Fairfax is also hoping to create a neurodiversity specialist position — meant to improve academic outcomes for students with disabilities — and to hire a “trauma-informed social emotional learning specialist,” who will in part help children process the lingering damage of the pandemic.
The school system will use money from pandemic relief funds approved by Congress in December to pay for other pandemic harm-mitigation efforts, including setting up summer school and offering “remediation and intervention” for students, school board member Karen Corbett Sanders said.
“Our budget reflects the values of this board,” she said at a meeting this month. “That includes employee compensation, support for emotional supports for our students and our staff, as well as looking for additional funding sources to be able to address the critical needs of opportunity gaps . . . caused by the covid-19 pandemic.”
The school board voted unanimously to adopt the budget in mid-February. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the issue in May.
Officials with Loudoun County Public Schools, which enrolls 81,000, this month announced a budget of $1.493 billion — an increase of 14 percent over last year. Part of the requested funding would be used to increase employee compensation by 3.5 percent. Other priorities include establishing a new transportation routing system and growing the school system’s practical nursing programs.
But millions of dollars would go toward pandemic-related learning measures. Loudoun is proposing to spend $7.7 million to expand its summer school options and better accommodate English-learner students and students with disabilities. The school system is also hoping to devote $4.3 million to its distance learning offerings, and to spend $1.5 million to establish an “alternative school” for students whose lives have been so upended by the coronavirus that they cannot participate in a traditional learning environment.
Loudoun’s school board adopted the budget Feb. 2, and the county will adopt its own budget — including funding for the school system — in early April. If the county does not agree to fully fund Loudoun’s budget, the school board will be forced to reconvene and launch a “budget reconciliation process,” said Loudoun spokesman Wayde Byard.
Arlington, meanwhile, is just beginning its budget journey. The superintendent’s presentation Thursday marked the first time board members and the public had a chance to review the budget.
Durán’s suggested budget for fiscal 2022 raises the compensation rate for employees by 2 percent, provides more resources, staffing and services for children with disabilities and English learners, and improves Arlington’s network infrastructure and technology services. That includes offering students portable WiFi devices, known as MiFis, with “unlimited access,” as well as purchasing a vehicle for technician use.
The board will continue to workshop Durán’s plan over the next several weeks. Members are slated to adopt the revised budget in early April.
In Alexandria City Public Schools, which enrolls 16,000 children, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr.’s proposed budget totals $322.7 million, an increase of 1.4 percent from last year. Hutchings has suggested giving all eligible employees a “step increase” in pay that totals $5.7 million systemwide. Employees at the top of their pay scales would also receive a 1 percent one-time payment, and all eligible staff would receive a 1 percent bonus.
Much of the funding also goes to children with disabilities and English learners. Alexandria officials are aiming to give more funding to regional special-education programs, and to hire more staff who work with those two populations of children.
The budget also devotes $500,000 to supporting students’ social, emotional and academic needs, and it calls for additional funding to help school staffers get in contact with hard-to-reach families — including by hiring Amharic and Arabic parent liaisons. It further provides funds for cleaning and building management, meant to help the school system transition to hybrid learning. Alexandria, like all Northern Virginia school districts, has promised to offer every student who chooses it some form of in-person learning by mid-March.
The Alexandria school board approved the budget in February. It will go before the city council in April.