Cintia Johnson

Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson speaks to Arlington School Board members on Sept. 5, 2019.

Arlington Superintendent Cintia Johnson this week will formally outline her plan to reduce spending in the wake of the health and economic crisis.

Johnson will report to School Board members on April 16 with an updated budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning in July, supplanting one she had detailed less than two months ago.

Since that time, the county government – which supplies about 80 percent of the school system’s funds – has unveiled plans to trim its budget to address expected revenue shortfalls related to the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most other local governments in Northern Virginia are embarking on a similar process.

In February, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz had proposed giving the school system $546.6 million, and Johnson (who has been interim superintendent since last August) responded that the school system needed $27.5 million more than that, to fund what she termed a “conservative” and “no-frills” schools budget.

(“No-frills” being a relative term in Arlington, as Johnson’s initial budget proposal would have pushed per-student spending up nearly 7 percent to a state-record $21,290 in the coming year.)

In his revised budget proposal, Schwartz has recommended allocating the school system $524.6 million, a decrease of 3.9 percent from his original proposal and lower by 8.5 percent than what Johnson said she needed.

“Similar to the county [government], the schools will need to make some very difficult choices,” said Schwartz, who trimmed his budget, in part, by eliminating proposed pay raises for virtually his entire workforce.

Frequently, the annual budget process plays out with the School Board asking for more money than it is entitled to under a revenue-sharing agreement, and the County Board ultimately acquiescing in full or in part. This year, however, both because of the dire economic situation and because the budget process is being done largely on the fly, the school system may have to make do with roughly what Schwartz is proposing.

On March 25, as the extent of the impact of the public-health crisis became apparent, School Board members directed Johnson to revise her budget downward in anticipation of reduced funding, but gave her no specific dollar-figure guidelines.

School Board members plan to congregate, in person or “virtually,” for a budget work session on April 21, then hold a public hearing that evening before adopting their own budget proposal two days later. The final school budget will be enacted after the County Board adopts its own budget package and sets tax rates at the very end of April.

The single-year impact of the economic cliff-dive on the county and school budgets could have been much more dire than it will be: More than half of county-government revenue (about $800 million) comes from real-estate taxes, which will not be significantly impacted – at least this year – by the vagaries of the economy. Schwartz is guesstimating that real-estate-tax assessments next year will be essentially unchanged from 2020, where previously the estimate had been for a 3-percent increase.

Schwartz has acknowledged that, even after the budgets are adopted, more revisions may be needed.

“Our expectations of [economic] recovery change from day to day,” he said.

Details of the school system’s evolving budget can be found at www.apsva.us.

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