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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 04/19/2012

Budget outlook bleaker for Fairfax schools

Update, 9:15 p.m.:

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers on Thursday sent Fairfax school board members a “letter of no confidence” in Chairwoman Jane K. Strauss, citing her “misrepresentation of the approved budget” during a presentation before the Board of Supervisors last week.

Last week Strauss requested that county supervisors increase their contribution to the schools by 5 percent, or about $80 million. The school board approved a spending proposal in February that called for an increase of 8.4 percent, or $136 million.

Strauss told The Post on Wednesday that she was trying to present a realistic request to county supervisors, who have made it clear that the schools’ proposed budget was pie-in-the-sky.

The teachers group, which represents about 4,000 of the Fairfax school system’s approximately 23,000 employees, fears that that scaled-back request undermines the schools’ negotiating position with the county and reduces the chances that teachers will receive a raise next year.

The group called for the school board to either “to take back control of the messaging” about the budget or remove Strauss from the chairmanship.

Neither Strauss nor Vice Chairman Ilryong Moon immediately responded to a request for comment.

Original post:

Fairfax County’s School Board approved an optimistic budget proposal in February that assumed that supervisors would boost the county transfer next school year by $136 million, or 8.4 percent.

But last week, School Board Chairwoman Jane K. Strauss told supervisors during a budget hearing that the board is now seeking an increase of just 5 percent, or about $80 million.

Strauss said she was adapting to a budget picture that has grown bleaker since February, and wanted to present a request within the realm of possibility. The county executive has estimated that supervisors cannot afford a transfer increase of more than 4.5 percent.

“I’m trying to be realistic with what’s on the table,” Strauss said in an interview Wednesday.

The scaled-back request for county dollars — coupled with new state legislation on retirement benefits, which will cost the school system millions of dollars — leave no doubt that the School Board has tough choices to make before it finalizes next year’s budget in May.

Strauss’s decision to reduce the request for county dollars came as a surprise to many of her board colleagues. They had spirited debates in February about whether their budget plan — which included the largest raises for teachers since 2008 — should be tightened to reflect the county’s economic realities.

Ultimately, they narrowly passed the blue-sky version, with Strauss’s support.

Board member Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon), who voted in favor of the February proposal, said he disagreed with Strauss’s decision to present a different request.

“The obligation and the responsibility of the chairman is to represent what the board is doing,” he said. “We identified what the needs are and we present that and the Board of Supervisors can make their own judgments.”

The move also drew fire from representatives of teacher groups, who argue that the lower request undermines the school system’s negotiating position — and thus any chance for a salary increase.

“To misrepresent three months of budget hearings and public input, just to show up and say something that nobody’s expecting — that is a complete abuse of authority,” said Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Strauss said the school system’s priorities have not changed. The board still wants to “provide enough compensation so we continue to attract good people” and “restore some of the funding for some of the critical student programs that were lost during the recession,” she said.

Under the February proposal, the school system hoped to expand summer school offerings, increase foreign-language classes in elementary school and eliminate $100-per-sport athletic fees, among other things.

It’s not clear now which of those the school system will actually be able to afford. But proposed teacher raises — including 2 percent cost-of-living raises and “step increases” based on experience and education — are “off the table,” Superintendent Jack D. Dale said at the supervisors’ budget hearing last week.

The best the school system can hope for, Dale said, is to offer teachers a 1 percent cost-of-living increase in their take-home pay.

Besides getting a smaller pot of money than it had hoped for, the school system is also trying to figure out how to pay for expensive retirement-system reforms enacted by the General Assembly this year.

The new law requires school-system employees to contribute 5 percent of their salaries to the state retirement system. To compensate, school boards must raise salaries by 5 percent — and pay federal payroll taxes and other benefits on the higher amount.

The law allows school systems to phase in the change over the next five years, but Dale is proposing to do it in one fell swoop next year.

School officials estimate that the change will cost $15 million directly, and a total of $52 million indirectly.

By  |  12:32 PM ET, 04/19/2012

Tags:  fairfax county public schools, budget

 
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