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Squeezing Me Softly

Wondering why the Arlington Public Schools budget seems at times to be on auto-pilot? Look no further than the wonkish “planning factors.” Because they are so workish, the need for transparency and clear justification is even greater.

Planning factors are the primary determinant of the APS budget. They should ensure parents of APS students that resources for schools in one section of the county are equitable with other schools in the county. For example, each high school is assigned one principle and an assistant principle for each additional 450 students. Except for some minor adjustments, the budget for each high school is provided one classroom teacher for each 23.4 general education students.

A search of the APS website identified no policy or procedures for making adjustments to the so-called “planning factors.” Yet they always seem to be adjusted, and invariably in favor of a larger Arlington public school system. There is little evidence that changes are supported by studies or other rigorous analyses.

During this evening’s School Board meeting, staff reported on class size for the 2007-2008 school-year (agenda item 2.D.). The report included planning factor changes from FY 2004 to FY 2008. A few of those changes included:

  • FY2004: Maximum class size for grade 1 reduced from 24 to 23 and for grades 4 and 5 from 28 to 27. Class size in grades 4 and 5 reduced from 25 to 24 students. Class size in kindergarten reduced from 24 to 23.
  • FY 2005: Class size in kindergarten reduced from 23 to 22 except for Arlington Traditional School which remains at 23. Montessori (3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds) class sizes reduced from 23 to 22.
  • FY 2006: Formula for middle school gifted teachers revised from 0.50 to1.00. A new planning factor added to provide one reading teacher per sixth grade team in each middle school and 0.5 for the HB Woodlawn Program.

Similar changes were made in FY 2007 and FY 2008.

To their credit, the minutes of the July 2, 2007 School Board/staff retreat shows “the staff allocation process based on the use of planning factors” was discussed. In addition, the Superintendent “proposed that for FY 2009, staff develop recommendations for changes to planning factors.”

Without transparency and lack of clear justification, the planning factors can become yet another way for squeezing a few more dollars out of Arlington taxpayers. With a highest in the commonwealth cost per student of just over $18,500, there needs to be a lot of transparency and justification for the major factors driving the school budget.

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