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Arlington County, Schools Host Brainstorming Session on Budget Priorities, Cuts

Arlington Public Schools will hold its own forum next week.

Looking across the Washington-Lee High School cafeteria, Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan said jokingly that maybe it could be rented out for a wedding.

"Look at the view," she said to a few chuckles.

Renting out public facility space was just one of many ideas that residents offered to help the county — and, by extension, Arlington Public Schools — make ends meet in next year's budget.

"We're better off than most," Donnellan said. "We're not Detroit. We have people who are still investing … We're growing, but that's a good thing."

Other ideas to come forward? Cutting the police department's budget, eliminating Cherrydale Branch Library, putting the Columbia Pike streetcar on hold and busing Arlington children to vacant schools in Washington — all of which are unlikely.

But the night yielded plenty of practical ideas, too.

About 75 people — a third of them staff for the county or school system — spent a solid hour Thursday night in break-out groups brainstorming priorities and potential cuts.

Earlier this month, the Arlington County Board authorized Donnellan and her team to use a mix of tax increases and spending cuts to close a budget gap that could be as high as $50 million.

The county is projecting as little as a 1 percent increase in real estate assessments. Residential assessments could increase as much as 2 percent, though commercial real estate is forecast to stay virtually flat.

The county is also expected to face increasing costs for employee compensation and healthcare, along with funding commitments to Metro and debt service.

Arlington County funds more than 80 percent of the school system's budget. Much of the rest comes from state and federal dollars, which also could be cut.

The school system is struggling with constant escalation in its student population, leading to crowded schools. Superintendent Pat Murphy said at least $10 million will be needed next year to cover the growth, in terms of teacher salaries, staff, textbooks and supplies — plus another $2.9 million for portable classrooms.

The school system is considering replacing step increases for its employees with one-time payments and eliminating or outsourcing employee benefits. Other options include reducing maintenance and construction (which only defers costs), increasing class size and laying off custodians.

The school system will hold its own budget forum from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Education Center, 1426 N. Quincy St.

Peter Rousselot, who spoke for his break-out group Thursday night, said the county "should take a step back and rethink" the Columbia Pike streetcar, particularly given the substantial school enrollment increases expected once the transit system goes online.

Many of the suggestions Thursday night leaned toward priorities for the school system — the recent decision to reduce the number of students eligible to ride buses came up several times.

"If we cannot get all of our kids to school safely … That's a pretty basic service," said Elizabeth Wirick, who is part of a parents' group that opposes the changes to busing.

"My school is awash in iPads," she said. "I'd much rather my kid be on the bus."

People listed affordable housing, sidewalks and social safety net programs as priorities. Rousselot suggested the county conduct a well-drafted online community survey that explained the cost of cutting different things as a way to gather more input. That folded into a larger discussion of whether the county and schools should look at cutting in large swaths or making lots of small cuts.

Putting county employees on bikes came up, as did cutting back on things like beautification and landscaping. At least one woman asked if the Artisphere should be on the chopping block. Several people said the county and school system should work together more — and more often — particularly when it comes to transportation planning and facility management. Should high school students take ART?

One person suggested converting community centers that used to be schools back into schools, rather than paying to build new ones. An eighth-grader suggested expanding the schools' language programs, perhaps by diverting some money from sports.

And several people were concerned that a large number of students in Arlington schools don't actually live in Arlington.

In the end, county and schools staff said they struggled with many of the same issues those in the break-out groups did.

No weddings are planned for the Washington-Lee cafeteria. Yet.

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