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Without a cost of living increase, the proposed ACPS budget is causing concern for staff and families

(Updated at 4 p.m. on Jan. 29) Critics contend that the proposed Alexandria City Public Schools budget shortchanges staff, but that’s not what the superintendent is saying.

Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt says that her proposed $374 million fiscal year 2025 budget focuses on retention with a full step increase and a 2% market rate adjustment for eligible staff. The school system is currently experiencing a staffing crisis, and the budget also increases bus driver salaries to $24 an hour for new drivers and more than $47 per hour for senior drivers with more than a decade experience with the school system. The budget also opens the door to the creation of a collective bargaining agreement with staff.

At Thursday night’s public hearing on Kay-Wyatt’s budget, Alexandria Middle School teacher David Paladin Fernandez said that the school system needs to come to a collective bargaining agreement. He also said that the budget does not provide a cost of living adjustment (COLA) for staff.

“If I asked everyone in this room if our educators deserved more, I have no doubt that every single one of us would say yes,” Fernandez told the School Board. “We’ve had a record exodus of top-tier educators to surrounding school districts with no plan to address it, and we have members of ACPS leadership suggesting the preposterous idea that a step (increase) is the same thing as a cost of living adjustment… A step is related to my experience and loyalty to the organization and a cost of living adjustment is related to larger economic realities we have no control over. They are not the same thing and they should be recognized in this budget.”

ACPS Chief Financial Officer Dominic Turner said in a Jan. 11 School Board retreat that the school system has seen a lot of turnover in school leadership over the past several years. An ACPS teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $58,000 and an ACPS teacher with a master’s degree makes an average of $90,000, and the majority of ACPS teachers are on a Master’s degree scale.

“In the past three years we’ve had 14 new principals and we’ve had 20 new members on the SLT (senior leadership team),” Turner told the Board.

Robin Benatti is the parent of an 8th grader and 6th grader at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, and said at the public hearing that she was “appalled that the budget does not include a COLA.

“This poor decision is going to hurt our students, and further damage our reputation,” Benatti told the Board Thursday. “Teachers in ACPS deserve to make reasonable compensation. This proposal falls short, big time. The struggle to hire qualified teachers for our extremely dense school district will only intensify if you don’t also include a COLA. Be bold. Be aggressive in your position to show the community that you believe in investing in our educational talent.”

Alicia Hosmer has children at Alexandria City High School and at Hammond, and said that a COLA will make the school system more attractive for staff.

“My 8th grader and his classmates have been without an Algebra teacher and their learning is suffering,” Hosmer told the Board. “We cannot recruit and keep top talent when surrounding districts such as Fairfax and Arlington are proposing to give teachers both a COLA and step increases. We will lose more teachers to surrounding districts which means more empty classrooms and more strain on the teachers who remain with ACPS.”

School Board Member Meagan Alderton said at the Jan. 11 retreat that a positive work environment is as important incentive as compensation for staff retention.

“I think pay is 100% essential,” Alderton said. “But we need to be thinking about the job environment we provide to make people want to stay in this profession. There are plenty of people who just love teaching, who love education, and I do believe that if people feel successful in this work, that will also make them stay.”

In the meantime, Board Chair Michelle Rief is concerned that the budget is asking for a 4% increase in the city’s appropriation ($258.69 million) and a 4.1% increase from the state (about $2.5 million), but that the Governor’s proposed budget would transfer only 2-to-3% of requested funding.

“If we don’t receive the state and the city funding that we need, we are not going to be able to pass this budget,” Rief said.

ACPS will hold a public meeting on collective bargaining on Jan. 25. The Board will adopt its budget on Feb. 16, and it will then be incorporated into City Manager Jim Parajon’s budget, which will be presented on March 14.

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