Arlington Citizen-Journal

Arlington schools budget to fund construction, teacher pay raises, new positions

Cindy Powell, Arlington school district chief financial officer
Cindy Powell, Arlington school district chief financial officer Star-Telegram archives

Arlington school district trustees are set to vote Thursday on a proposed 2015-16 district budget that would fund the construction of elementary schools, provide a 3 percent raise for teachers and staff and add more than 80 positions requested by campuses and departments.

The $1 billion budget includes $500.9 million in general fund expenditures and more than $395 million in construction funds, as well as expenditures for debt service and school meal programs.

The district is in the midst of a five-year, $663.1 million bond program that was approved by almost 70 percent of voters in May 2014. The district’s proposed tax rate for 2015-16 is $1.415 per $100 of assessed property value. That rate is 6.689 cents more than the current year but almost 3 cents less than voters were told they could expect with the bond program, said Cindy Powell, the district’s chief financial officer. The new rate would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $50 to $57 more in taxes next year, depending on whether Texas voters approve a higher homestead exemption in November.

Powell said increases in property values and continuing low interest rates have helped the district ask for less than expected. Using estimates from the Tarrant Appraisal District, the school district projects property values to be 3.89 percent higher in 2015-16 than the previous year.

“Last spring, when we were talking to community groups about the bond election, we had worked with our financial advisers and had estimated the tax impact of the bond election, should it pass. Where we are right now is about 3 cents better than we anticipated,” Powell said. “As long as property values continue to trend like they have been, I don’t expect that our tax rate will increase that full 3 cents that we are saving at the moment.”

Powell presented preliminary budgets at the school board’s June 4 and 9 meetings. She said the district will begin the 2015-16 budget year with a fund balance, or reserves, of $185.8 million. If revenue estimates are correct for next year, the proposed budget would leave an ending fund balance of $181.5 million, enough to fund district operations for 41/2 months. Credit-rating agencies recommend that districts have at least two months’ reserves on hand.

At their meetings, trustees approved motions instructing the staff to add funding for the 3 percent raise and 82 requested new positions to initial proposals. An effort by new board member Polly Walton to increase the proposed salary increase to 31/2 percent was rebuffed by others on the board who expressed concern that it would cut too deeply into the fund balance. Walton pointed out that the district has a history of underestimating its projected surplus, resulting in the building of the large fund balance.

But board members John Hibbs and Bowie Hogg said surplus money shouldn’t be used for recurring expenses like raises. Hibbs also said that money may be needed to fund expansion needs at Sam Houston High School, on the district’s east side.

Geoffry Harris, a Lamar High School teacher and president-elect of the United Educators Association’s Arlington chapter, said the organization was glad to see an increase from last year’s raise of 2 percent. Still, he added, the district needs to do more to prevent rising insurance costs and other factors from stripping away salary gains. At the board’s June 4 meeting, Harris described comparing a check from three years ago to one from May and seeing a difference of only $72 a month in take-home pay.

In a competitive marketplace, the district must make sure longtime teachers are appropriately compensated for their loyalty, Harris said.

“As I told one of the school board members: I would like it to be more, but it’s better than 2 percent,” he said of the proposed raise.

Among the 82 requested positions included in the new budget are 36 professional positions, which includes new teachers, instructional aides and administrators. The remainder of the positions will be administrative support, technical and auxiliary hires, such as school security officers, STEM lab managers and bus drivers.

Other key features of the budget being considered include:

▪ $4.7 million in general operating fund dollars will be spent on finishing Diane Patrick Elementary, on the far east side of the district at 755 Timber Oaks Lane. Unlike two other new elementary schools in the 2015-16 budget, Patrick Elementary is not bond-funded. Before the 2014 bond package, board members committed to using some of their surplus operating funds to build the school and meet a growing need. Powell said: “It’s a great use of surplus fund balance because a school has a useful life of at least 40 to 50 years.”

▪ The construction fund, which is part of the overall budget, outlines the spending of bond money for construction on two new elementary schools, a campuswide career and technical center, multipurpose activity centers at each high school and several other projects. Bond money also will fund technology enhancements, new fine arts instruments and uniforms, and 23 new buses and 35 fleet vehicles promised in the bond.