Arlington school district to raise student fees as part of budget deliberations

ARLINGTON -- For the first time in eight years, the Arlington school district will raise fees for transfers, GED tests, musical instrument rentals and other student services. Officials expect it to generate about $300,000 toward a projected $8.4 million budget shortfall for the coming school year.

Fees will be increased 20 to 30 percent for 2010-11, reflecting the growing costs of providing services, said Cindy Powell, associate superintendent for finance. The Arlington school board does not approve the fee increases. They are handled administratively.

"We are looking at ways to reduce our deficit," she said. "We are looking at all possibilities, both ways to add revenue and to reduce expenditures."

Many districts are grappling with budget shortfalls amid the economic slowdown and state funding difficulties. Arlington faces its fourth consecutive annual shortfall, which would again require dipping into the district's reserve fund, which stands at $70 million.

The challenge got tougher last week when the Texas attorney general issued an opinion that school districts must pay teachers their regular step increases next year.

The opinion, which sought to clarify language in funding legislation, could force the district to add $2.4 million to its preliminary budget of $437 million. The budget had not included raises, but trustees were to discuss them again before the Aug. 31 deadline for adopting the budget.

Raising student fees "definitely adds stress and strain," Trustee Aaron Reich said. He added that it "is probably the last step of what we can do at this point for revenue generation before our superintendent has to make the difficult decisions on what cuts have to be made."

Most of the fee increases were included in a $4.8 million package of savings ideas recommended last month by the combined Citizens Advisory Committee/Financial Futures Committee.

The school board will resume budget talks when it receives the staff's updated proposed budget Aug. 5. That version will include revenue projections based on the latest property tax rolls expected from the Tarrant Appraisal District around July 25.

"It's not huge dollars," committee Chairwoman Laura Jones said of the student fee hikes. "But we're at the doorstep of having to cut programs and get into classroom instruction, and that affects teachers and students."