Fairfax County School Board approves 2015 budget

The Fairfax County School Board has approved a $2.5 billion budget for 2015 that eliminates 720 employee positions, increases class sizes and provides raises for most teachers and staff.

The board voted 9 to 3 Friday morning to pass the budget, which is $39.9 million larger than last year’s approved budget, an increase of 1.6 percent.

Schools Superintendent Karen Garza earlier in the school year had shown concern for what schools officials said was a significant projected shortfall facing the school system, what she termed a “crisis” that could seriously affect Virginia’s largest school system. But in the end, thanks to cuts and $30 million in additional funding from the state, the school board easily passed a balanced budget.

Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee), vice chairman of the board, said fiscal challenges this year were exacerbated because the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors “underfunded” the schools. The supervisors provide more than 69 percent of the funding for the school system’s budget. The schools had requested a 5.6 percent increase in local funding for schools, and supervisors approved a 3 percent increase.

Despite lower-than-expected revenue, the school board’s spending plan calls for most employees to receive the equivalent of a 2 percent raise next year. The “delayed step increases” will take effect in November for teachers and instructional assistants.

But the raises are smaller than the 2.5 percent increases the board had planned. In recent years, the board has promoted initiatives to improve compensation for teachers in the county, which lags behind neighboring districts in average pay. Some board members said that this year’s efforts still fell short.

“We haven’t achieved our objective this year,” said Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon), who voted against the budget. “That has to change if we’re going to continue to retain and attract the best of the best.”

Throughout the year, teachers across the county staged demonstrations and protests calling for better pay. Several teachers said that without substantial raises they would leave Fairfax to seek classroom jobs in Arlington or Loudoun.

School board members Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) offered an amendment that aimed to provide teachers and staff with slightly higher raises next year by implementing $4 million in new testing fees for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. In February, the board approved the testing fees in the advertised budget, but the fees were removed from the final budget motion, on Garza’s suggestion.

McLaughlin questioned why the school system pays the fees when the majority of students who take AP and IB classes come from upper-income and middle-income families that can afford to pay the test costs. (Students from poor families qualify for fee waivers.)

“I really am bewildered,” McLaughlin said. “What’s most important is to compensate our employees as best we can. It’s not to pay for upper- and middle-income families’ testing fees for their students.”

School board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said that he did not want students to avoid taking AP or IB classes because of testing fees. Derenak Kaufax said that many families who qualify for fee waivers choose not to self-report their income status because of embarrassment.

The motion failed 2 to 10, with only McLaughlin and Schultz supporting their own amendment.

In the end, McLaughlin, Schultz and Storck were the only board members to vote against the budget. Storck said that it was the first time he had not voted for the budget in his 10 years on the school board.

Storck said he objected to the fact that aspects of the final budget were not approved in a vote, such as the exclusion of AP and IB fees that the board had already unanimously passed in February. He described the process this year as “ very undemocratic,” and that as a result, the budget was built on a “false premise.”

“We have to start at a place of principle and we’re not,” Storck said. “We have to debate these things and sometimes it gets messy. It seems like tonight, if anything, we’ve gone backwards.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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