Arlington taxpayers would save $112 million per year if the county school system rolled back per-student spending to the levels of neighboring Fairfax County, one fiscal watchdog says.
But even he isn’t holding his breath.
Arlington will spend an average of $18,957 on the education of each of its more than 25,000 students this year, according to new figures from the Washington Area Boards of Educations (WABE).
That’s up 1.8 percent from the $18,616 per student recorded during the 2015-16 school year, but remains below the all-time record of $19,040 from 2014-15.
WABE analyzes the budgets of 10 school systems in the Washington suburbs, attempting to achieve an apples-to-apples comparison on spending among the jurisdictions. The full report is available at www.apsva.us/budget-finance/wabe-guide/.
As is the case most years, the only jurisdiction in the local suburbs that approaches Arlington’s per-student cost is the city of Falls Church, which will spend $18,418 per student this school year, up from $18,032 a year before.
But it isn’t the per-student spending in Falls Church that intrigues Arlington County Taxpayers Association president Tim Wise. It’s the region’s behemoth: Fairfax County Public Schools.
That school system, largest in the commonwealth, will spend $14,432 per student this year, up 5.2 percent from a year before but still 22 percent below Arlington’s rate.
“Note there is a cost-per-student difference of $4,525 between the Arlington Public Schools and the Fairfax County Public Schools,” Wise said. With an overall student body of about 25,300 students, Arlington’s school system could shave $114.5 million off its nearly $600 million budget by reducing per-student expenditures to Fairfax County’s level, he said.
“To the best of our knowledge, neither the Arlington School Board nor the superintendent have ever explained the $4,525-cost-per-student difference between the Arlington and Fairfax County public schools,” Wise said.
Ask, and ye shall receive: The Sun Gazette queried School Board Chairman Nancy Van Doren on the subject.
While school leaders in the past have largely ignored the question – noting that voters must think spending levels are fine or they wouldn’t approve county school bonds by four-to-one margins – Van Doren went a step or two further.
“Arlingtonians are very proud of our schools and the success of all Arlington students. While our cost per pupil may be higher, we certainly reap the benefits of this investment in our students and community,” she said, pointing to three areas the require the additional spending:
• “Our salaries reflect Arlington County’s higher cost of living and allow APS to remain competitive in maintaining a highly qualified corps of instructional staff and school leaders.”
• “We have consistently maintained smaller class sizes to ensure that we provide strong instructional experiences while also focusing on meeting the needs of the whole child.”
• “We proudly provide a greater array of instructional resources and specialized programs.”
(And it’s not as if high per-student spending is a new phenomenon: The Northern Virginia Sun way back in December 1959 reported that Arlington that year topped all jurisdictions statewide.)
Van Doren notes that the school system asked the state government in 2012 to conduct an efficiency review, which resulted in 27 recommendations. The school system implemented 23 of them, she said.
“We will continue to look for ways to run our operations efficiently, but we are committed to maintaining the high-quality services we provide for children,” the School Board chairman said.
Where do other school districts in the region stack up on a per-student basis? The WABE reports 2016-17 spending levels of $17,008 in Alexandria, $15,975 in Montgomery County, $13,869 in Prince George’s County, $13,121 in Loudoun County, $13,112 in Manassas, $11,158 in Manassas Park and $10,981 in Prince William County.
The District of Columbia Public Schools does not participate in the WABE survey.