Before the Federal Reserve implemented interest rate increases aimed at reducing inflation the interest paid on bonds and other debt securities was negligible. Accordingly, wily financial professionals advised clients that their investments had to be in the stock market because of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) principle. Now, of course, the interest rate environment makes TINA obsolete.
TINA remains relevant in another context: the funding of the public schools. As the astute social observer my mother used to say, “Not educating somebody else’s child is the most expensive thing you can do.” Mom, a long-range thinker, had in mind the very high social costs generated by young people who were denied a quality education or failed by the schools. These costs can include the significant expense of caring for people who are incarcerated or otherwise involved with the justice system.
The importance of funding the public schools can be a hard sell to some Alexandrians, a substantial majority of whom do not have school-age children. The problem is compounded by incidents of student violence, perceptions of initiative churn or excessive capital project spending, or other perceived instances of administrative waste.
So, it is worth considering the discussion in the March 8 joint City Council—School Board work session about money for facilities improvements for the Chance for Change Academy, an alternative program for Alexandria City High School (ACHS) students. Here is how the ACPS website defines the Chance for Change Academy:
The Chance for Change Academy will equip students with the tools to manage their behavior and identify necessary resources needed to improve their academic achievement through (a) behavioral interventions and supports and (b) therapeutic interventions and supports incorporated into the instructional day. The Academy serves as a temporary placement for students whose matriculation in the traditional setting had been disrupted by various circumstances and also, based on a case-by-case basis, for students that request participation in the Academy.
The Board’s proposal, which involved a potential capital expense of several million dollars, generated pushback from the City Manager and some members of the City Council, including Mayor Wilson, who said:
I’m inclined to agree with everything you said. The problem is, I just heard it for the first time a couple of minutes ago. You and I meet monthly at City/Schools. This has never been placed on the agenda. I’ve read through the entire operating budget proposal, a couple of glancing mentions of Chance for Change. I can’t even find in your website how many kids are at Chance for Change right now, and trust me, I’ve searched and I know your website pretty darn well. So, if there is a story to be told on alternative education and about a change in policy and a different direction that requires significant capital investment, last time I checked, I’m the Mayor of this city and I don’t know anything about it.
The nearly three-hour work session can be viewed
As expected, School Board members and the Superintendent and staff responded with impassioned statements about the value of the Chance for Change Academy. It is tempting to see these discussions as just another flare-up in the ongoing wrestling between the Council and the Board over money, but that misses important context.
Virginia’s system of dependently-funded school divisions—the Board requests and the Council appropriates—almost guarantees conflict. School boards in other states have the authority to issue bonds and/or the ability to propose a millage—the submission of capital projects to voters for approval. In many jurisdictions, the financial discussion between the school board and the local government body that funds the schools is limited to negotiating the percentage of municipal revenues that will go to the schools.
Alexandria, and other Virginia school systems, do things differently. Of necessity, the School Board plays offense, but it does so in a system in which the Council, in its role as financial appropriator, freely expresses itself about school programs, performance, and capital project priorities.
There seems to be no clear answer as to the best way to fund public schools. However, in Alexandria’s system in which (to borrow a phrase from ACHS students) everybody is all up in everyone else’s business, some conflicts are inevitable.
The Council and the School Board should seek to avoid those conflicts to the extent possible, manage them when they occur, and resolve not to carry them on as grudges.
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at email@example.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/
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You are right: the process of funding schools is a mess. I suspect it always has been. And I totally agree with your mother, we do need to pay attention to kids with alternative learning needs. But if what Mayor Wilson say is true--if no one saw this request coming--then shame on the school board. You have to tell a story early and often in order to give it gravity and make it stick. There is no "one and done" in the business of public persuasion.
Will Tinker ever get another chance? I guess so!