Arlington Superintendent Patrick Murphy

Former Arlington Superintendent Patrick Murphy.

Already the highest among the Washington suburbs, Arlington Public Schools’ per-student cost would rise 3.4 percent to a record $20,012 under the fiscal 2020 budget proposal unveiled by Superintendent Patrick Murphy on Feb. 28.

The $671.6 million budget plan – also a record – would be up 4.9 percent from a year before, in large part because of the effects of ongoing student growth that has seen the system grow from 19,500 students in 2009 to a projected 28,500 next year – up 46 percent.

“People are coming here. We have had unprecedented growth over the past decade,” Murphy said in laying out his spending package. “We need to be prepared for how we address this growth.”

Murphy said his budget proposal – whose per-student cost eclipses that reached during the height of the spending boom (dubbed the “Taj Mahal era”) of his predecessor, Robert Smith – was not extravagant.

“We have taken efficiencies and reductions,” Murphy said, pointing to $10.1 million in trims that occurred before the budget was made public.

The need for the extra cash, he said, is “really related to the continued enrollment growth.”

In his presentation, Murphy pointed to a remaining $8.9 million “spending gap” between revenues and expenditures, based on the budget proposal made by his counterpart, County Manager Mark Schwartz, who has recommended a transfer to the school system of $526 million. Funding from the county government represents nearly 80 percent of all school-system revenue in a given year.

“There will be continued dialogue [between the school system and county government] for the next 10 weeks,” Murphy said.

Spending gaps are often trotted out at budget time to mobilize parents to call for more funding, but in 2019 may prove to be illusory. Schwartz proposed a tax-rate hike of 1.5 cents per $100 on real estate to fund his proposed $1.34 billion budget, but the County Board ended up advertising a 2.75-cent increase. The final number likely will be somewhere between the two figures, meaning the school system would get the cash it is seeking without having to make cuts.

But just in case, Murphy has proposed a number of ways to meet a shortfall, from increasing class size to shifting construction funds around.

The current fiscal year’s per-student cost of $19,348 puts Arlington Public Schools well ahead of the pack in funding among local suburban jurisdictions, according to figures compiled by the Washington Area Boards of Education, which attempts to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of school costs among jurisdictions ringing the District of Columbia.

Comparable rates for fiscal 2019 are $18,544 for Falls Church, $17,606 for Alexandria, $16,281 for Montgomery County, $15,293 for Fairfax County, $14,260 for Loudoun County, $14,093 for Prince George’s County and $11,633 for Prince William County.

Unlike some localities, where there is a corps of residents who call for fiscal restraint, it’s a decidedly limited group in Arlington, and they lost their spiritual leader last year with the death of longtime Arlington County Taxpayers Association president Tim Wise, who was invariably good for a quote about the excesses of government spending.

(“Tell School Board members to direct the superintendent and staff that Chevrolet schools are good, but not at Cadillac prices, especially in a Pabst Blue Ribbon budget environment,” Wise urged his flock in 2015, another year when school officials were complaining about a tight budget environment while approving construction of schools with higher costs than those in neighboring jurisdictions.)

The School Board will hold public hearings on the fiscal 2020 budget on March 28 and May 2, with final action slated for May 9 after the County Board sets its own budget and determines how much revenue will flow to schools. Both budgets will fund government operations for the 12 months beginning July 1.

For information on the proposed fiscal 2020 budget, see the Website at www.apsva.us.