Voters deserve to know what School Board candidates think about the APS proposed budget. Here are some of my takeaways about facilities and operations, district administrative costs, and the long-term sustainability of the APS budget. If you missed Parts One and Two of my budget analysis, you can find them in the News section of my campaign website.
Nine Takeaways on Facilities and Operations
1. Lease payments for technology purchases: After the year we've had, it's clear that every student needs a digital learning device. But do we have the right ones? APS will spend nearly two million dollars next year to renew its lease on digital devices. APS is leasing iPads for elementary and middle school students (consumer list price: $329 each) and MacBook Air laptops for high school students (list price: $899). Next door in Fairfax County, students are working with HP Chromebooks (list price: $249). Students in Montgomery County use iPads and Lenovo Chromebooks (list price: $289). Chromebooks are the device of choice in Alexandria and Loudoun County, too. Do we need such expensive technology? I don't think we know, because to my knowledge there hasn't been a comprehensive evaluation of the 1:1 device program since it was launched several years ago.
2. Replacement of buses: APS is budgeting $1 million to replace some of its buses, which in my understanding is done on a regular schedule based on the age of the bus. However, since most of the bus fleet sat idle for a year, I'm wondering if we can delay bus replacement until FY23.
3. Busing to the new school at the Reed site: APS is asking for $390,000 to hire more bus drivers and attendants when a new elementary school opens at the Reed site next fall. This is a real head-scratcher: last year during the school moves process, APS argued that McKinley's student population should move to Reed because it was "so walkable" and that making this move would actually reduce transportation costs. So what happened?
4. Elimination of late buses: I'm really concerned about a proposed Tier 2 cut that would eliminate late buses for athletics and other afterschool programs. Cutting late buses could jeopardize many students' ability to attend athletic practices or participate in afterschool activities, so if I were a School Board member I would want to see some detailed data about ridership in order to truly understand the potential equity impact of ending this service.
5. Furniture: There's $1.2 million in the budget for new, additional, and replacement furniture. $750,000 is allocated to outfit the new classroom spaces at the Ed Center site, and the rest goes to existing schools in the system. As a School Board member, I'd want to explore how how we might improve our Procurement processes to reduce costs like these. In particular, I’m interested in a shift some school districts are making away from a “Request for Quote” approach (like APS's current “Invitation to Bid”) to a “Request for Proposal” model. The District Management Group writes, "With RFQs, the purchasing function is outlining the solution in the form of detailed specifications for a product or service; this often precludes the district from considering alternatives and making trade-offs to get the best value. Instead, outlining a need in an RFP allows vendors to use their creativity, knowledge, and expertise to come up with the best solutions at the best value for the district."
6. Increased cost of APS office space: APS is reporting a $131,000 increase on the lease of its current office space in the Sequoia/Syphax complex. I'm curious to learn why APS wasn't able to negotiate a better deal, given that commercial real estate markets have taken a hit during the pandemic.
7. Freezing open positions in Maintenance and Plant Operations: Tier One cuts would delay the hiring of an additional HVAC technician, a quality control specialist, and a relief custodian. APS states, "Schools may not get relief custodians as needed based on absences across the school division." Is this really a good game plan, given our need for heightened safety and cleanliness protocols?
8. Aquatics: I'm curious about a cut that was proposed, but not taken, in Tier 4. The Aquatics staff offered to cut $80,000 and actually described this reduction in a favorable way, stating that it would "increase efficiency and create a $0 based community swim budget (income and expenses are equal). Gives Aquatics the ability to more directly control expenses, costs, and staffing levels."
9. ADA compliance: This is a capital improvement budget issue, not one that impacts the operating budget (except in debt service). But since I am talking about facilities, I'll add this in: we must never again open a new, multimillion dollar facility that's not fully accessible and ADA compliant. This has happened twice in the last three years, at The Heights building in Rosslyn and at Alice West Fleet Elementary. We've spent millions of extra dollars retrofitting those buildings so that they are fully inclusive and safe for students, families, and staff with disabilities. This is a financial and legal issue, and it's morally wrong.
Five Takeaways on District Administrative Costs
1. General Counsel: I support the creation of an in-house General Counsel's office. I believe this will help our school system anticipate and prevent inequitable (and potentially unlawful) treatment of individuals and groups, and it should ensure tighter compliance with the federal and state laws and regulations that govern special education, English language learning, and more.
2. Language Services Registration Center (LSRC) registrar: APS is proposing a Tier 2 cut which would delay hiring a registrar to enroll and support students and families who are non-native English speakers. Without this position at the LSRC, it would be up to individual school registrars to enroll English learners (ELs) and to assess students' English proficiency to determine their placement in the appropriate EL level. This seems like a lot to ask of our school registrars, who may not have the necessary training to do this. There's also an awful lot at stake for these new EL students and their families.
3. English learner leadership: I support hiring a Director of the Office of English Learners, which creates an equivalent leadership structure for students receiving direct EL services (18% of APS students) as exists for students receiving special education services (14% of APS students).
4. Executive-level staff reorganization: It's certainly the right of every new CEO to change how an organization is structured and staffed. Dr. Durán wants to restructure his executive leadership team, which would involve creating a Chief Operating Officer position. This reorganization comes with a net cost increase of $110,000. As a School Board member, I'd question whether this is the right year to create a new C-level position. I'd ask whether APS's current Chief of Staff, Brian Stockton, could fill these shoes for one year, especially given his strong track record managing and improving operations in other school systems.
5. Ongoing budget study: The FY22 proposed budget includes $75,000 to continue a budget study that we've been conducting since FY20. I want to know more about the goals of this study, what we're learning, how we're applying what we've learned, and ultimately, whether it will help us budget in a more sustainable way going forward.
Which brings me to...
There's a big, red flag that's buried in the 544-page budget document, and you can find it on page 192. Here's what it's signaling to us:
As APS noted in the text that follows (p.196) and as the Budget Advisory Council urged in its end-of-year report last June, we need to take a long, hard look at some of our major costs.
The BAC report identifies class sizes (planning factor ratios) as an obvious first place to look, since staffing is the school system's most significant cost. As I mentioned in last week's budget analysis, I believe that there are significant cost savings we can achieve within our existing class sizes if we implement some best practices used on other school districts.
The other areas we need to look at include transportation, energy, IT, and the cost savings we might achieve through close coordination (and perhaps in some cases, consolidation) with the County. BAC notes, "These [reviews] may be underway, in which case there should be more transparency around what is happening so that the community is aware and can provide input." This is the type of vitally important and difficult work that I would push for as a School Board member.