‘We won’t be Fairfax anymore’

HANDOUT IMAGE: Dr. Karen Garza speaks during a press conference on April 18, 2013. The Fairfax County school board unanimously approved veteran Texan educator Karen Garza to be the next superintendent. (Photo by Donnie Biggs / Fairfax County Public Schools)
Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza (Photo by Donnie Biggs / Fairfax County Public Schools)

“We won’t be Fairfax anymore.”

There’s something poignant about that statement, made by Fairfax County school board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large) and quoted in my colleague T. Rees Shapiro’s story about a projected $140 million budget deficit that new Superintendent Karen Garza is proposing to close with major cuts for programs and staff.

If every one of these cuts is actually made, he is essentially saying, the fabulous reputation that Fairfax County Public Schools has enjoyed for many years will be irreparably harmed. Is it true?

Shapiro’s story says that Garza is proposing a list of cuts that include eliminating a foreign language instruction program for elementary school students, increasing class sizes, ordering furloughs and cutting employees contracts cut by one day.

There are consequences, of course, to each of these. Research shows it is easier to learn another language when young, and we live in a world where it is imperative for Americans to know languages other than English. Class size really matters, and it is already the case that some classes have 30 or mores students. Cutting a day out of a contract may not sound like much, but  for complex reasons, Fairfax already pays teachers so much less than some neighboring districts that it is no longer very competitive. There are reasons not to make other proposed cuts, too.

There are a host of reasons for the budget deficit, none of them involving  real mismanagement. The district faces declining revenue from the state and rising health-care costs, and, Shapiro wrote:

During the past five years, the schools have seen a surge in student enrollment as the county continues to attract immigrants and families seeking a top public education. Enrollment has increased by 15,000 students since 2008, outpacing school funding from the county, schools administrators said. At the same time, populations of students taking classes for English as a second language and those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals — a measure of poverty — have climbed dramatically.

 

Clearly there are those who think Garza is hyping the problem. Shapiro quotes  Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) as saying he intends to look carefully at the list:

“If you can tell by the list of cuts that  they are designed to get under our skin, we will let that be known. The schools should not take this out” on students.

Let’s ignore the condescending tone of his comment, and move on to what is real and what isn’t.

Deep cuts are certainly coming to Fairfax. The county supervisors won’t make up the entire deficit. They never give the school system the amount requested not only because city/county governing bodies rarely do anywhere but also because the school district in the past has asked for more than it needed. That isn’t to say, though, that it doesn’t need the money it is requesting now.

Fairfax is a big system and has enjoyed a national reputation in part because it provides strong — albeit expensive —  educational programs. Should Garza actually follow through with every one of her budget cutting proposals — which isn’t likely — programs will be hurt and in turn the district’s reputation will  be damaged, though whether or not it is enough to make Fairfax no longer Fairfax is far less clear.

Shapiro wrote a story recently that said that despite projected budget deficits each year, the school board has managed to find ways to pay for projects and other things and wind up with millions in leftover funds at the end of the fiscal year. The school board has until now found ways to keep quality services despite funding concerns, and there is no reason to think that they can’t keep trying with some success.

There’s a big “but” though. Over time, cuts add up. Small cuts add up.  Programs that are trimmed are eventually gutted.

It’s easy to say that cuts shouldn’t touch the students, but what does that really mean? Cutting custodians cuts students. Cutting a central office that is properly staffed winds up affecting the entire system, including students. Cutting assistant principals that are needed hurts kids too. Eliminating programs that aren’t absolutely necessary but that are part of a well-rounded, high-quality educational program hurts children. Paying teachers and other staff non-competitive salaries drives good adults out of the system, harming the students.

This may not be the year that Fairfax won’t be Fairfax any longer. But the longer proper funding isn’t provided to the school district because the state won’t give enough and/or county taxes for education are too low and as long as cuts are the order of the day while the student enrollment rises, then there will come a day when that will become true.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 21, 2013