August 18, 2011

Arlington school board OKs budget with 24 new positions, tax decrease

It also eliminates two furlough days and lowers the tax rate by 3 cents.

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ARLINGTON -- The school board approved a $389.7 million operating budget Thursday after adding 24 positions for ailing schools and eliminating two scheduled furlough days for some employees.

The board also adopted a property tax rate of $1.3055 per $100 of assessed value, including a 3-cent reduction in the debt-service portion of the tax rate.

Officials said the district will qualify next year for additional state funding to help with bond projects. Because of that, the district must reduce the tax rate to offset that gain in state funding. The rate cut will trim the annual tax bill on an average home worth $115,000 by $33 next year.

The budget grew by $2.2 million in the final moments to cover the new positions, the furloughs and $400,000 to replace part of a state instructional grant that was cut during wrangling this spring in the Legislature.

The district's healthy fund balance, or reserve fund, will cover the added cost, leaving a projected balance of $112.6 million.

The furloughs would not have applied to teachers, counselors and certain other groups, which some board members said was unfair to the administrative and support staff that would have shouldered most of the pay cuts. Only about 1,700 of the districts' 7,800 employees would have had to take the unpaid days off.

The furloughs were part of district cutbacks of about $21 million and 631 jobs to help offset reductions in state funding.

"No matter how we sugarcoat it, it's a pay reduction for those folks," board President Peter Baron said.

The budget includes no pay raises for employees.

The 2011-12 budget marks a major bookkeeping event. The district is starting its fiscal year earlier, moving from Sept. 1 to July 1, which makes the coming fiscal year only 10 month long. That will provide a one-time boost of about $33 million to the reserve fund because the district will receive 12 months' worth of revenue and pay only 10 months' worth of expenses.

But even adjusting for the two lost months, the new budget projects an $8 million surplus at the end of the fiscal year -- the result of the district's budget-cutting coupled with unexpected revenue from increased enrollment and improved property values. Also, the state's funding cuts were only about half what officials expected.

The board held public hearings on the budget and tax rate before the vote and received little comment. Two critics of district spending lauded the board for making tough cutting choices, while Larry Shaw, executive director of the United Educators Association, renewed his criticism of the board for not dipping more into its reserve fund and its $21 million gas-drilling revenue fund to avoid some cuts.

The board also said it wants a $10.4 million federal grant for education jobs to be used retroactively to pay expenses in the 2010-11 budget. That will add $10.4 million to the new budget's fund balance.

Shaw and others had urged the board to use the money to save jobs, but trustees have said they didn't want to use one-time funding for recurring costs.

The 24 new positions, including 19 teachers, are earmarked for eight schools that were rated academically acceptable by the state only because they were granted various exceptions. The staff had already added 16 positions at a cost of $900,000 to help four campuses that received the lowest rating of academically unacceptable.

Robert Cadwallader,


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