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Alexandria School Board goes all-in asking City Council to approve massive tax increase

Alexandria School Board Members went all-in Wednesday night in asking City Council to fund its budget by approving a massive tax increase.

Mayor Justin Wilson told the Board at a budget work session on Wednesday night that its fiscal year 2025 $384.4 million combined funds budget request would result in a historic tax increase. The Board, in turn, said that the funding could stem the school system’s staffing crisis.

“To be candid, the combination of the operating requests and the capital requests is probably about a 6 cent tax increase, which is not viable,” Wilson said, adding that it would be the largest tax increase since the 5.7 cent tax increase of 2017 raised the average residential property tax bill by more than $300.

The Board’s proposed budget, which was approved last month, surprised Wilson and other Council Members, who said they were left in the dark with its development.

“I’ve heard nothing around a strategic look at how we pay folks,” City Council Member John Taylor Chapman told the Board. “I know many of you personally. I know you care about what you do. I know you are professionals. So, when I say ‘Hey, I expect you to bring a great budget to Council and Council is going to fund it,’ I don’t expect you to be just willy nilly. I expect you to be focused and I think that’s who you are.”

School Board Chair Michelle Rief countered that the Board has been strategic in its thinking, and that she prioritizes the 2% market rate adjustment for staff as the most important addition that needs funding.

“In my opinion, to sort of go out publicly and tell us to fight for the thing that we need and then come here and tell us that we’re we’re asking for too much, I think might be a political strategy on your part,” Rief said.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, who is running for mayor, said that the city should raise taxes to fully fund the school system’s budget request.

“I know it’s a sacrifice for all of us,” Jackson said. “I mean, we all live here in the city, and raising taxes would be a sacrifice.”

Jackson was the only Council member to not criticize the school system’s budget during the meeting.

“I just feel like we need to get close to what they’re asking for, if not fully funded,” Jackson said. “I think raising taxes also will mean that hopefully we’re not cutting our services and that our services are remaining at the optimum level for our residents and our businesses, but also making sure that our schools are remaining competitive and keeping our community stronger.”

School Board Member Tammy Ignacio was brought to tears while recounting the stresses that staff and students are experiencing.

“We have got to be able to compete with our surrounding jurisdictions,” Ignacio said. “In my 32 years in education, I have never seen it this bad. I have never seen the level of kids in a classroom without a teacher in front of them.”

City Council will set a maximum tax rate next week, allowing the City Manager to pursue some of the Board’s proposed additions, which include $4.2 million for staffers who did not get step increases in fiscal year 2021 and a $5.4 million (2%) market rate adjustment for all eligible staff.

Council Member Alyia Gaskins, who is running against Jackson in the Democratic mayoral primary, said she is in favor of advertising a higher tax rate to consider the additions.

“We have to deliver a balanced budget that responds to the needs of our community and that means doing right by our teachers and students,” Gaskins said. “If in the end we decide an increase is necessary, then I will be leading the charge to figure out relief for those who cannot keep affording these increases, like seniors on fixed incomes or others who are one tax increase away from not being able to afford to live here.”

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi, who is running for City Council, said that he’s asking them to make an unpopular decision during an election year.

“It’s your decision to decide whether you want to raise taxes or not,” Elnoubi said. “If you do that, if you decide to raise taxes, I’m 100% with you… Let me just address the elephant in the room. It is an election year and as a School Board Member I’m in a less tough position.”

Four City Council Members are seeking reelection, and two members are running for mayor. Elnoubi and School Board Member Jacinta Greene are also running in the June 18 Democratic City Council primary.

Elnoubi said that from Council’s perspective, the Board gets to take credit for the increased funding while City Council has to deal with the consequences of raising taxes.

“That’s very viable, that is the political reality of things,” Elnoubi said. “What I will tell you is we are doing what we think is right for the school system… I would be derelict in my duty if I don’t ask you for what we need, understanding full well you may not be able to give it to us, which is fine.”

Wilson said that the Board needs to work closer with Council to craft not only this budget, but future budgets.

“It is impossible for us to resolve the gap on both the capital and operating side,” he said. “So we are going to pick a number and to come to some conclusion to our process, and it’s going to be challenging to arrive at that number without some really good input from the School Board as to what that should be.”

School Board Member Tim Beaty said that living in the city is becoming more expensive, and that the additions are focused on teacher retention.

“We were doing what we thought was best in order to keep the quality of what we’ve got,” Beaty said. “I’m frustrated that this leads to this huge difference between what we need and what’s available in the budget.”

City Council will adopt its final budget on May 1.

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