In a joint “visioning” session on Saturday, May 19, the City Council and School Board began laying out common values and criteria for decision-making.
The effort follows from the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force’s recommendations. Council established the advisory task force, comprising citizen-volunteers with relevant professional backgrounds, last May, following a particularly contentious FY 2018 budget. Council and the School Board are statutorily separated, sharing the power of the purse with respect to public education. But drastically misaligned outlooks created what the city budget document called a “funding dilemma.” Council charged the task force, as a “disinterested” third party, to help prioritize city and schools’ projects within funding constraints and to streamline the overall inter-governmental capital budgeting process.
The task force delivered its recommendations last winter, paving the way for greater agreement in the FY 2019 budget. Regarding overall process, the task force’s principal diagnosis was that “Alexandria lacks a unified and distilled vision for the future,” according to its final report. “Each entity has its own strategic plans and vision but not a document that distills them together and that would support understanding priorities and tradeoffs.” A common vision would help to “clarify priorities for decision making.”
In this vein, Saturday’s meeting focused on “establishing some new rules by which … decisions can be made,” said Mignon Anthony, the schools’ new chief operating officer and a former task force member.
“What are the core values that we want to develop for this new collaboration?” asked facilitator Steve Polo of OPX, a consulting firm. The two bodies landed on a handful, including:
Decisiveness & focusing on results: “We will make decisions,” as opposed to analysis paralysis and a “smaller and more incremental” approach, said School Board Chair Ramee Gentry.
Mutual respect: Councilman Willie Bailey noted a historic lack of “trust;” Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said the two bodies face “the past” and “parochialism” as obstacles.
Prioritization of public education: A “shared belief in schools as a key resource for a thriving city,” said Gentry. This isn’t a given. Many residents “don’t have children that are attending the [public] schools, and … they resent having to pay taxes that go to improvements to the schools, and then pay a [private school] tuition for their children,” said Councilwoman Redella Pepper.
Actionable Communication: “Communication between our bodies and how we communicate with the public” has been an obstacle, said Councilman John Chapman. There should be an “accurate and timely exchange of information,” said School Board member Veronica Nolan. Shared information should form “the basis for decisions,” said School Board member Hal Cardwell.
Officials also brainstormed criteria, according to Polo’s brief, for “assessing and selecting between the competing or coincident opportunities or concepts.”
“Often a decision … gets made [through] an internal lens that nobody else can see,” said Polo. “If it’s external, it’s usually something like, ‘How much does it cost?’ which is valuable but not very strategic. [Or] worse: ‘I like it,’ or, ‘I don’t like it’ — really not strategic. … We’re going to try to build a set of criteria that we can use … to decide almost anything.”
Top agreed-upon criteria include:
Mission alignment: “Things should be tied back to our respective strategic plans,” said School Board Vice Chair Cindy Anderson. “When we’re doing these joint things … we’d have to see how it aligned with the city’s [strategic plan]. There would be areas of more overlap, and not. But if something we’re doing was just totally somehow contrary to the city’s, then we’d have to discuss that.” And vice versa.
Complete analysis: “How well it has been thought out. … Have we compared it with other jurisdictions to see what they’re doing? Is there a better way?” said Pepper, echoing a major theme of the task force that alternatives to capital projects be considered fully and transparently.
Urgency and priority: Officials generally agreed these aren’t synonymous. A need isn’t of high overall importance just because it’s imminent. Conversely, a solution shouldn’t be rushed just because the need it’s addressing is important. But they agreed to leave the concepts linked and to allow other criteria to tease out the proper balance case-by-case. The risk “of doing something or not doing it” informs urgency and priority, said Anderson.
Cost and return on investment (ROI): Cost is the front-end resource requirement, “irrespective of what it’s going to do for us,” said Polo. ROI weighs back-end “impact,” said School Board member Chris Lewis.
Other jurisdictions have also taken steps to bridge their municipal governments and school divisions. For example, nearby Fauquier County and its schools consolidated three areas: human resources (including compensation and benefit programs), finance (including procurement) and general services (buildings and maintenance).
In a 1997 issue of “Government Finance Review,” John Doane, the ad hoc administrator who oversaw the consolidation, and John Tuohy, then county finance director, wrote about the resultant “improvement of the process of developing the capital improvement program (CIP). With a single department responsible for all buildings and grounds, priority setting lost much of the contentious schools versus general government infighting ….”
The consolidation resulted in an initial annual savings/avoidances of $765,000 (nearly $1.2 million in current dollars), according to a 1998 report. The report also noted: “Any savings resulting from staffing changes increase over time as annual step and cost of living increases are avoided.”
Asked if Alexandria has considered consolidation to the extent possible, City Manager Mark Jinks said: “In general, the sharing of services has evolved to either the City or ACPS [Alexandria City Public Schools] based on who has the greater expertise, or if an economy of scale can be obtained by combining services (as was the case with mowing). I would make a distinction between the City/ACPS and Fauquier and its school system. Fauquier has a much smaller government than does the City. [Alexandria has 3.5 times the staffing level, 4 times the non-school portion of the operating budget, and 10 times the FY 2019 CIP.] There is also an issue of accountability, as there are some services such as building maintenance that as a building user one wants to be able to direct. That said there are potential areas for combining operations such as fleet maintenance, more sharing of business operations software, and joint procurement which are all currently under study.”
Interim ACPS Superintendent Lois Berlin said she agrees with Jinks. Elected officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.