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Superintendent Elizabeth Homan presented the Arlington Public Schools' proposed fiscal 2025 budget to the School Committee at its Feb. 29 meeting. A public hearing about the proposed budget is set to take place Thursday, and the committee expects to vote on the budget on March 21.

The $103 million budget proposal prioritizes increased educator pay as well as support for subpopulations that need it, including the town’s growing population of young English Language Learners and students with disabilities. It also reflects a 6 percent increase from this year, a bump supported primarily by Arlington’s general fund as federal pandemic-relief dollars dry up.

School districts across the commonwealth and the country generally face a challenging budget season. Pandemic-relief dollars expire in September, and declining enrollment in some cases is eating into school budgets that rely on per-pupil funding.

Arlington is not immune to these challenges, though the district has not relied on pandemic-relief funding nearly as much as larger nearby public-school districts.

Covid-19-related monies

"We are in the middle of a large curriculum rollout, and the pandemic relief dollars were helpful for professional development," Homan told YourArlington late last month, speaking about the district's transition to Expeditionary Learning, the newly adopted reading program that is still being implemented. "We are trying to figure out where to take those resources from now."

APS will eliminate the equivalent of fewer than 10 positions next fiscal year, according to the presentation at the Feb. 29 meeting; the list includes changing some full-time positions into part-time ones. 

Inflation is also predicted to impact next year’s budget, which makes room for an anticipated 40 percent increase in the cost of electricity for the 11 school buildings the town operates.

“This is happening all over the country, all over the commonwealth, and is having a pretty significant impact,” Homan said during the meeting.

Employee pay

Arlington’s general fund will contribute $7 million more this coming fiscal year than the waning one, including a $3.1 million allocation from the successful November 2023 property-tax override vote. Town spending will cover increased funding for special education and a bump in educator pay, the committee members were told.

The average teacher salary in Arlington was $83,000 in 2021, according to the most recent state data, roughly $3,000 less than the average teacher in Massachusetts makes.

"When we compare ourselves to our peers with similar tax bases we have struggled to pay teachers competitively," Homan told YourArlington. "We are neighbors with Lexington, Somerville and other communities that have a fairly high teacher salary [and] with whom we compete for candidates."

Roughly 70 percent of the school budget was spent on salaries before Homan became superintendent, in mid-2021.She said the district now spends more than 80 percent of the budget on salaries, leaving little room for increased pay without an influx of dollars. The property-tax override, approved by voters last year and to take effect this coming July 1, is providing those extra dollars, Homan said.

“We were really excited about that override being passed and are dedicated to making sure that we set aside funds and resources to meet the commitments of the [competitive compensation] override,” Homan said at the Feb. 29 meeting.

10-year enrollment chart

Local resident Martha Ingols, who has a fifth grader at APS, told YourArlington that she feels her child's teachers do deserve better pay. “There’s something wrong with a system where teachers can’t afford to live in the town where they teach,” Ingols said.

The district raised paraprofessional salaries earlier this year per an agreement in December. Teacher salary negotiations are underway, with current contracts set to expire in August; Arlington Education Association President Julianna Keyes has declined to comment.

Pandemic funding phasing out

Pandemic-relief money from the federal government, commonly known as ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Fund, paid for five full-time and two part-time positions in Arlington Public Schools, according to the budget. In FY25, the district will retain four of these positions, including the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion or DEI specialist.

However, APS plans to eliminate the family liaison, a position piloted at Gibbs School this year and meant to connect students and their families with support services and help forge relationships between staff, families and the larger school community. Homan said the district now hopes to incorporate the work of the family liaison into its newly opened, district-wide Family Welcome & Resource Center, citing budget limitations that make it difficult to support this role at each individual campus.

Demographics shifting; district adjusting

Enrollment in Arlington Public Schools, which previously had climbed for nearly a decade, stalled in 2020. Overall enrollment remains flat, with projections predicting a dip in the coming years.

“We're adjusting elementary staffing levels because we have decreasing enrollments,” Homan said at the committee meeting. “But we want to make sure that we sustain existing service levels and even add resources in particular areas that will benefit our [student] focal groups.” APS focal groups include students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and students from low-income households.

Many of these groups overlap with students considered “high-needs,” meaning that they require additional resources, staffing and support, Homan said. The population of “high needs” students is steadily growing in the district and includes students for whom English is a second language, students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, and those from income-insecure households.

Arlington is among many Massachusetts municipalities supporting the shelter system overflow. The town housed migrants as of February, according to state data. APS re-routed a school bus this year to transport those students from their temporary shelter to their school, according to the budget.

The district may later on consider adding more elementary-school-based librarians, extra custodial support and additional reading interventions if additional room exists in the budget.

Watch ACMi video of Feb. 29, 2024, meeting:

Wednesday, March 29, 2023: $88.9m School budget OK'd, as committee meets at METCO

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Emily Piper-Vallillo was published Thursday, March 7, 2024.

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