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ACPS teachers advocating at the January 19, 2023, School Board meeting (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria City Public School teachers are saying that the proposed salary and step increases aren’t enough.

Last Thursday, 15 ACPS teachers appeared before the School Board at its public hearing for Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s $359.9 million fiscal year 2024 combined funds budget proposal. Kay-Wyatt is proposing a 2.6% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for eligible ACPS employees, and the 85% of the budget pays the salaries for 2,700 employees. She’s also proposing eliminating a step for employees on the pay scale.

Jay Falk, an Alexandria City High School English teacher, told the School Board that classes are so large teachers simply don’t have time for students.

“My overall student caseload is over 140 students,” Falk said. “There are almost a dozen teachers in our school who have 150 to 180 students. If I spent every minute of my planning time for a week grading essays, with 140 students I can spend no more than two minutes looking at each child’s essay.”

Alexandria City High School teacher Jay Falk speaks at the Jan. 19, 2023, School Board meeting (staff photo by James Cullum)

About 15% of ACPS teachers retired or quit last year, outpacing Arlington’s 9.5% and the national average, which is 8%, according to the Washington Post.

ACPS enrollment is projected to increase modestly from 15,732 students at the end of the current school year to 15,847 students at the beginning of the next school year in August 2023. Enrollment peaked at more than 16,000 students at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 school year — during the height of the pandemic — resulting in ACPS losing 474 students (3%).

But inaccurate enrollment projections have prompted frustration from some parents.

“This year’s enrollment numbers exceeded last year’s projections in the overwhelming majority of schools, including Brooks,” said Armita Cohen, the PTA president of Naomi L. Brooks Elementary School. “This resulted in larger classroom sizes in many grade levels, which made it harder for teachers to do their jobs. It continues to make it harder for students who are experiencing social and academic delays to catch up.”

ACPS enrollment projections (via ACPS)

Falk said that teachers are burned out, and that ACHS principals requested more than 20 new full time employees. Instead, five new full-time ACHS employees were funded in the budget. She and her colleagues are asking that the Board consider fully funding staffing requests from principals and that those funding requests be made public. They also want more instructional staff, counselors, and social workers. Lastly, they want two or three steps eliminated from the bottom of the salary scale, not just one.

Just at Minnie Howard, we lost three of our four counselors,” Falk said. “We are burned out, overworked and overwhelmed… Is there a reason the superintendent’s budget did not include everything that school leadership is telling you they need?”

Kay-Wyatt did not attend the meeting, but previously acknowledged increased class sizes and staff burnout.

“That is a big challenge that we will continue to shine a spotlight on,” Kay-Wyatt said after presenting her budget earlier this month. “The national teacher and bus driver shortage and the highly competitive salaries that are offered in the D.C. Metro Area have to be addressed so that we can provide our students with a quality education. We must also work to address the many forms of trauma that our students face.”

The School Board is expected to pass the budget (with revisions) on Feb. 16, and it then goes to City Council before being approved as part of the city budget in early May.

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Alexandria City Public Schools Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt says her budget will help address some of the long-term effects of the pandemic.

Kay-Wyatt’s theme for the budget is to “reset, restart and refocus” the school system, and she says employee retention is crucial.

“We hope the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is in our rearview mirror,” Kay-Wyatt told the School Board. “But the challenges that it has left behind clearly need to be addressed.”

On Thursday, Kay-Wyatt presented her $359.9 million fiscal year 2024 combined funds budget proposal, and 85% of it is geared toward paying the salaries of more than 2,600 ACPS employees. Kay-Wyatt is proposing a 2.6% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for eligible ACPS employees, as well as increased funding for Social and Emotional Learning programming (SEAL) for every student to regroup students coping with learning loss and other pandemic-related issues.

“We do know some of our challenges, of course, have been staff burnout,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We hear that from our staff, we hear that from our organization, and we are definitely focused on that as well.”

Kay-Wyatt continued, “That is a big challenge that we will continue to shine a spotlight on. The national teacher and bus driver shortage and the highly competitive salaries that are offered in the D.C. Metro Area have to be addressed so that we can provide our students with a quality education. We must also work to address the many forms of trauma that our students face.”

The budget is a 4% increase over last year’s approved budget, and includes funding to develop an official ACPS plan and policy for collective bargaining with employees.

Systemwide, ACPS enrollment is projected to increase modestly from 15,732 students at the end of the current school year to 15,847 students at the beginning of the next school year in August 2023. Enrollment peaked at more than 16,000 students at the tail-end of the 2020-2021 school year — during the height of the pandemic — resulting in ACPS losing 474 students (3%).

ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the proposed budget on Jan. 19. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 16, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.

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Body-worn camera (photo via Tony Webster/Flickr)

The Alexandria Police Department and local non-profits are getting a federal funding boost as part of the new omnibus funding bill.

Rep. Don Beyer (D) who represents the 8th District highlighted a few of the benefits to Alexandria in the FY 2023 omnibus bill approved on Friday.

According to Beyer:

Alexandria:

  • $1,500,000 for the Alexandria City AHDC Arlandria Housing+ Project, a multi-phase, mixed-use project that will combine 475 units of affordable housing with commercial, retail, and community space
  • $1,000,000 for Full Deployment of Body-Worn Cameras in Alexandria Police Department
  • $1,500,000 on behalf of ALIVE!, Inc. for the Alexandria Community Food Resource Center
  • $750,000 for the Notabene Drive, Four Mile Rd., and Old Dominion Blvd. Flood Mitigation Project, Arlandria

The $1.5 million to the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC) is going to support a new housing project in the Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood.

The additional body-worn camera funding follows an earlier federal boost in grant funding for Alexandria’s body-worn camera program.

Photo via Tony Webster/Flickr

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1703 N. Beauregard Street, via Google Maps

The Alexandria School Board approved its 2024-2033 Capital Improvement Program budget on Thursday night, paving the way for construction of new schools, swing space and significant renovations over the next decade.

After a series of work sessions and public meetings this fall, the Board approved the $461 million proposal, with $58.7 million to be used next year.

“It is critical that we give our students the best opportunity to succeed by providing optimal learning environments and the resources to support their well-being and academic achievement,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said in a press release.

The fiscal year 2024 CIP budget is $37 million less than last year’s approved proposal, although that’s only because the Alexandria City High School Project funding.

In fact, development costs have risen sharply. The school system is contending with price jumps up to 200%, ACPS reported.

Between last year and this year, cost estimates for the design and project management for the new George Mason Elementary School increased from $16 million to $17.4 million when the project begins in FY 2024. Construction estimates for the school have also jumped from $64 million to $82 million.

The budget also includes $5 million to retrofit the office building at 1703 N. Beauregard Street as swing space while George Mason and Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology are completely rebuilt. George Mason students would transition to the swing space in fall 2024 and move into their new school in fall 2027, and Cora Kelly students would move to the swing space in fall 2027, and move into a newly built school in fall 2031.

The Capital Improvement Plan budget includes the following projects for FY 2024:

  • $17.4 million for George Mason Elementary School design, project management and other construction costs
  • $5.5 million for the renovation of the fifth and sixth floors of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School
  • $5.1 million for the retrofit of the swing space at 1703 N. Beauregard Street
  • $5 million for repair work at William Ramsay Elementary School
  • $2.5 million for renovations at Francis C. Hammond Middle School
  • $2 million in transportation system upgrades
  • $1.5 million for emergency repairs
  • $1.3 million for renovations at George Washington Middle School
  • $1.2 million for Alexandria City High School stadium renovations, security enhancements and stormwater improvements
  • $1.2 million for textbook replacements

The CIP budget will be included in Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget to the Board next month. The School Board will approve the budget in February, and it then goes to City Council for final adoption in May.

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Alexandria City Hall lit up (staff photo by James Cullum)

If Alexandria wants to hold onto its most skilled staff members, the Alexandria Planning Commission chair said the city government will need to pony up and pay more competitive wages.

A letter (item 10) drafted by Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek offered some guidance for the upcoming budget and some nudges toward more transportation funding and employee compensation.

“We encourage the City to evaluate and adjust the compensation of staff engaged in planning activities to provide salaries and benefits competitive with other government agencies and private employers in the Washington metropolitan area,” Macek wrote. “We note the departure of several capable staff members in recent years who might have been retained had the City’s compensation kept pace with regional market conditions. Efforts to reward and retain staff will promote a high-caliber workforce and facilitate the development and implementation of the City’s plans.”

The letter is scheduled for review at a Planning Commission meeting tonight (Tuesday) before going to the City Council.

Macek wrote that it’s critical that enough funding be allocated for staff to properly handle the workload of the many projects ongoing around the city, including:

“The Planning Commission seeks to ensure adequate budget to fully fund the planning activities anticipated in the year ahead,” Macek wrote. “We recommend that the City provide sufficient budget for all staff positions as well as consultant support to carry out the anticipated work program.”

The letter also included a note encouraging the City Council to go after more grant funding for planning activities — namely around transit development:

Finally, we strongly encourage the City to avail itself of grant funding available to support planning activities. The Federal Transit Administration’s Transit Oriented Development
Planning Pilot Program funds [Transit Oriented Development] planning in areas where new fixed guideway or core capacity transit capital investment is planned. Given plans for enhanced transit in the Duke Street corridor, this program could potentially fund the City’s small area planning in the area. Grants typically range between $500,000 and $1 million in size, and the program tends to be under-subscribed, so nearly every applicant has historically received a grant.

The budget advice comes even as city leaders — including Mayor Justin Wilson and City Manager Jim Parajon — warn that funding will be tight for the upcoming budget. The city is facing a $17 million shortfall and Parajon said the bag of tricks the city typically employs to close that gap is just about used up. While Wilson said the City Council will try to avoid a tax rate increase, it’s an option that’s still on the table.

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Money on a table (staff photo via Vernon Miles)

Alexandria’s revenue tax is growing, but too sluggishly to keep pace with the expenditures — leading to a $17 million shortfall as the city heads into budget season.

That estimate, from Mayor Justin Wilson’s monthly newsletter, is slightly lower than the estimate from a City Council meeting in November, but still presents a substantial challenge for city leadership attempting hold off on a tax rate increase.

Wilson said Alexandria’s budget is built around real estate taxes, which are growing but with some worrying signs.

“In Virginia, the structure of municipal finance is heavily reliant on real estate taxes,” Wilson wrote. “Consequentially, in Alexandria the real estate market, both residential and commercial, dictates our budgetary fate. Last year, we saw the healthiest growth in our real estate tax base in over 15 years. Yet, in the past year, mortgage rates have more than doubled. It’s hard to imagine that such an increase will not eventually impact our real estate market.”

Real estate tax revenue is projected to increase by 1.2% — which Wilson called a “return to the anemic growth that characterized much of the last decade and a half.”

Wilson said residential taxpayers are already paying more due to appreciation in the residential tax base, and adding a tax rate increase on top of that would add an even greater burden to local residents.

“I believe we should again work to avoid a rate increase while protecting the core services our residents depend on,” Wilson wrote. “Last year was the 6th budget in a row without a tax rate increase and I am hopeful we can continue that pattern.”

And yet, the city will have to find a way to close the $16.1 million shortfall. That shortfall is mostly attributed to an increase in city operations, the annual transfer to Alexandria City Public Schools and city debt service.

The approved 2023 budget and proposed 2024 budget (via City of Alexandria)

“With these revenue estimates and expenditure estimates, this brings us to a projected revenue shortfall of $16.1 million,” Wilson wrote. “Given that our local budget must be balanced, that shortfall must be resolved with either spending reductions, tax increases or some combination of the two.”

City Manager Jim Parajon, who warned City Council last month that “the budget is going to be tight,” is scheduled to present a budget to Council on Feb. 28.

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Empty desks at Alexandria City High School (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City Public Schools is in the initial stages of organizing a collective bargaining effort for thousands of its employees.

The school system has more than 2,400 employees and pays $11.6 million in salaries, with funds approved by the City Council. That means that any agreement reached between ACPS staffers and the school system will have to be approved by Council.

“In this case, you’re going to be negotiating a collective bargaining agreement for about 80% of your costs,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at a joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting on Monday (Nov. 28).

Wilson continued, “Without some special structure put together, you’re going to be doing so without coordination with the entity that is going to pay those bills. So, I think we need to figure out how we hold hands and put together a process where we can all do this together somehow.”

The news comes shortly after the city and police department came to a collective bargaining agreement. As part of that agreement, which was nearly a year in the making, police officers will get significant salary raises, as well as bonuses for longevity and specialized skills.

Education Association of Alexandria President Dawn Lucas says that her organization is ready to get to work.

“We are ready and willing to work closely during this process,” Lucas told the School Board on Nov. 10. “We believe that having strong collective bargaining will make us more competitive than other school divisions when it comes to retaining and recruiting the very best educators and staff.”

In the meantime, the school system is proposing a 2.64% step increase and 2.5% market rate adjustment for all staff in the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget. Healthcare costs are also projected to increase 8% and dental care costs will increase 2%.

Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt told Wilson that she will work closely with City Manager Jim Parajon’s office in creating a collective bargaining structure. No timeline has yet been presented.

“We will keep you informed as we are educating our staff on what it’s going to look at , as well as a timeline,” Kay-Wyatt said.

City Council adopted its collective bargaining ordinance last year.

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Facing inflation, a $17 million budget shortfall and fewer federal economic recovery funds, the Alexandria City Council will consider a tax increase in its upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget.

City Manager Jim Parajon has been tasked with presenting Council with two budget alternatives — one with a tax increase and another without.

“This year’s budget is going to be tight,” Parajon said at a recent Del Ray Business Association meeting. “We’re also predicting a much slower growth rate than we’ve done in the past. As you can imagine, property tax and the growth in our real estate is what drives a lot of our revenue. And we projected that’s going to be a little slower this year.”

Parajon said that city staff is expecting a shallow recession to impact the city this spring, and is eyeing expenditure reductions. So far, the $17 million shortfall is mostly attributed to an increase in city operations, the annual transfer to Alexandria City Public Schools and city debt service.

Mayor Justin Wilson hopes to not increase taxes, and said that inflation pressures impact city government, just like everyone else.

“We have not increased the tax rate in six years and I am hopeful we can avoid any increase this year,” Wilson told ALXnow.

The city is also contending with collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire department unions. Additionally, ACPS faces a $12 million budget shortfall, and wants to give employees raises.

The current FY 2023 budget saw a $445 (6.5%) increase to residential real estate taxes, although the tax rate of $1.11 per $100 of assessed value did not change.

City staff are also working on re-timing projects in the city’s 10-year $2.7 billion Capital Improvement Program to “better align with ability of operating budget to absorb costs increases and City’s ability to execute projects,” according to a presentation to Council on Tuesday night (Nov. 22).

Parajon will present his proposed budget on Tuesday, Feb. 28 — a week-and-a-half after the School Board approves its budget request. The budget will be approved in May and go into effect on July 1.

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George Washington Middle School (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Construction and other capital improvement costs for next fiscal year have increased for Alexandria City Public Schools by millions.

More than $14 million out of the $24 million in cost increases for new and existing capital improvement projects is due to supply chain issues and cost escalations, ACPS staff reported in a presentation to the School Board on Monday (Nov. 14).

Site development cost estimates have increased almost 200%, staff reported.

“There have been industry wide cost escalations on everything,” Erika Gulick, the ACPS executive director of facilities, told the Board. “That affects your groceries and your gasoline and affects construction and steel and concrete and everything else that we use to build our schools.”

In the meantime, the City is wrestling with its own capital improvement cost woes. The city is currently in the process of reevaluating its capital projects over the next decade, and says that CIP costs to the operating budget exceeds anticipated revenue growth.

“Approved capital budgets are larger and more complex than our experienced ability to execute capital projects,” City staff said in a presentation earlier this month. “(The) approved capital improvement program needs to be reassessed and placed on more sustainable path.”

The draft ACPS Capital Improvement Plan budget includes the following projects for FY 2024:

  • $17.4 million for George Mason Elementary School design, project management and other construction costs
  • $5.5 million for the renovation of the fifth and sixth floors of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School
  • $5.1 million for the retrofit of the swing space at 1703 N. Beauregard Street
  • $5 million for repair work at William Ramsay Elementary School
  • $2.5 million for renovations at Francis C. Hammond Middle School
  • $2 million in transportation system upgrades
  • $1.5 million for emergency repairs
  • $1.3 million for renovations at George Washington Middle School
  • $1.2 million for Alexandria City High School stadium renovations, security enhancements and stormwater improvements
  • $1.2 million for textbook replacements

ACPS will next conduct a community meeting on the FY 2024-2033 CIP budget on Monday, Nov. 28. The Board will approve the CIP on Dec. 15.

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A voter leaves City Hall after casting a callot (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

At a City Council retreat, Alexandria leaders met with some of the city’s leading budgetary advisors to discuss some dire signs of what one staff member called a “pasta bowl recession.”

The city’s top finance experts said the city should be cautious as it potentially heads into a period of stagnant economic growth — if not outright decline.

“We don’t want to take a doom and gloom approach,” said Director of Finance Kendel Taylor. “We’re not saying the sky is going to fall, but we actually don’t know. The uncertainty where everyone is sitting right now is fairly significant.”

Taylor said that, as the city begins to plan for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, the Department of Finance is being cautious.

“When we look at FY 2024: it’s very early,” Taylor said. “We only have a couple months of sales tax… interest rates keep going up, fuel prices, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re in a very cautionary stage.”

While the city’s economy is continuing to grow, Taylor said that’s going more slowly than she’d like. While the city averages 4% economic growth, Taylor said her office is estimating only a 2% change.

“We’re still an attractive place to live, we’re still economically sound, but it’s not what it’s been for the last few years,” Taylor said. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in the past year… but really we’ve just gotten back to pre-pandemic levels. That means we missed two years of anticipated growth. It’s a weird environment… It’s something where we have to just be cautious.”

Along with that slow growth, Taylor said interest rates have gone from 3% to 7%, meaning it’s more expensive to buy a house in Alexandria today than it was a year ago.

Vehicle assessments, meanwhile, remain high. The city approved a one-time tax relief for car owners to keep their tax from skyrocketing after vehicle values shot up during the pandemic. Taylor said the city is still monitoring those values this year to see if a repeat of that one-time relief might be needed.

“It’s too early to really know what’s going to happen with vehicles, but values remain high,” Taylor said. “We made an assessment adjustment in 2022 to mitigate those increases. We’re going to keep watching that over the next few months to see what’s the right approach to vehicle values in 2023.”

In brighter news, Taylor said sales tax and meals tax figures have remained strong, exhibiting a commitment from the community to supporting local restaurants and businesses. Those tax levels were restored to pre-pandemic levels in the summer of 2021.

The hotel tax has slowly been crawling back. Taylor said in July the city was within 10% of where the hotel tax was pre-pandemic. In August, it was within less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, Taylor warned that optimism over tax levels returning to pre-pandemic levels ignores the bigger concern that the city has still lost two years of economic growth.

“It’s great to see that hotels are getting back to pre-pandemic levels,” Taylor said, “but we would have typically seen a few percentage points of growth.”

Kevin Greenlief, assistant director of finance, said the revenue from FY22 was good and FY23 has revenue increases baked into it, but the keyword for FY24 is caution.

“In the second quarter of 2022, [chief financial officers] are beginning to be pessimistic about GDP growth and potential impacts of a recession,” Greenlief said. “The popular term right now is a pasta bowl recession’: a long recession but not a deep one. I’ve seen ranges from a -.4% GDP growth to a .1% positive growth. There’s a lot of debate right now about whether there will be a recession. The smart money seems to think so, but they’re not looking like the sky is falling, it’s that [growth] is going to be flat.”

As the city plans for the future, City Manager Jim Parajon said some of that will involve looking at how much office conversion the city allows. While the city has had numerous positive office conversions — from restaurants to schools — Parajon also warned against throwing the baby out with the bath water. Maintaining some level of office space could be the better long-term play, even if it means losing some revenue short-term.

“The conversion approach for outdated office makes a lot of sense, but I want to be careful that we don’t lose good office space to conversion,” Parajon said. “That’s really important, and that may mean we play out a cycle or two in the economy so we’re looking at a balance of commercial to residential.”

Even when offices do come back, Parajon said they may not resemble the sea of cubicles from the pre-pandemic days.

“We’re likely to see smaller footprint office components with lifestyle office elements,” Parajon said. “They all feed really well into Alexandria because we have an amazing lifestyle here and that’s enticing to a company that needs to recruit and retain talent.”

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