Fairfax County school board faces tough choices in budget shortfall


Fairfax County Superintendent Karen Garza. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

The Fairfax County School Board on Monday began considering extensive cuts to next year’s budget, as the county’s new superintendent suggested bridging an expected $140 million gap by lowering school staffing, increasing class sizes and implementing a sports user fee.

At a three-hour meeting, school board members discussed a series of possible cost-saving measures as they begin to formulate the school system’s $2.5 billion budget. They braced for significant cuts because schools expect to see a small increase in county funding but face tens of millions of dollars in additional costs because of rising health-insurance rates and surging student numbers.

“We have to drill down to the line items and have difficult conversations,” said board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who has advocated for reducing extraneous spending. “Everything cannot remain sacrosanct, and everything cannot be protected when we face a deficit like this.”

Schools Superintendent Karen Garza, who arrived in Fairfax in July, said the cuts would probably be “extraordinarily high,” and she expects that the school board will need to find at least $100 million to remove from the budget even if the schools get an anticipated 2 percent increase in funding from the county.

“People have been asking, ‘Will there be cuts?’ And I think that question was already answered for us,” Garza told board members. “There will be reductions. But what those reductions will be is the question before us.”

Garza has made more than 50 recommendations for possible cuts, including eliminating 1,722 staff positions that would affect custodians, kindergarten teachers and assistant principals, among others. She also suggested adding a user fee of $100 ­per student, per sport for athletics, cutting a foreign language program for elementary schoolers and increasing class sizes across the board.

Board members signaled during the meeting Monday that some of Garza’s proposals are not tenable options. Specifically, board members expressed displeasure with the idea of raising athletic fees and cutting the foreign language program in elementary schools.

Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said Fairfax should help students prepare to succeed in a globalizing work force in which corporations seek qualified employees who speak multiple languages.

“In Fairfax, we believe that foreign language education is a core part of the curriculum, and for our students not to be exposed to it at an early age is an extreme lost opportunity, especially as the world becomes smaller,” McElveen said.

Other board members voted in an informal poll to retain school guidance counselors. If they were eliminated, it would cut about 121 staff positions and save $10 million. Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), said that with surveys showing that Fairfax students experience high rates of depression and emotional stress, cutting guidance counselors would not make sense.

“Often they are the front line of connecting with students and identifying those at risk,” McLaughlin said. Schultz agreed, noting that a small budget decision now could have larger implications in the future.

“Smart spending of money saves money later,” Schultz said. “This isn’t just about cutting costs, it’s about choosing more effective means by which to spend our money so that it doesn’t cost us more later.”

Garza’s presentation comes at the beginning of budget discussions, and it is not the first time Virginia’s largest school system has projected high deficits. Last year, chief financial officer Susan Quinn projected a $147.9 million deficit for the current budget, but that estimate included $86.2 million in requested pay increases. This year is different, Quinn said. Officials estimate that the health-insurance rate increase will cost the school system about $27 million, and student growth is estimated to cost $25 million next year as enrollment is expected to increase by 3,000.

Quinn said the deficit has grown significantly because the cost of operating the school system has not kept pace with funding from the county, which allocates a majority of the schools’ budget.

Earlier this year, the board of supervisors told the school board to expect a 2 percent increase in the county transfer. But school board members said that without more revenue from the county — in the form of higher taxes — that significant cuts would be necessary.

“The goal that we all share is to make decisions that have the least impact on student learning,” Garza said.

Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) argued that the school system should look at administrative cuts before considering measures that would directly affect students.

“We need to make sure we’re focusing the money we have in the classrooms and on teachers and the kids,” he said. “We need to relieve the burden from the teachers and let them teach. Right now, you talk to any teacher out there and they’ll tell you that they’ve got a heavy administrative burden.”

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said the school board has to make hard choices amid broader budget concerns for the county that in recent years have led to cuts in public safety, parks and library services.

“The real stress is that all the low-hanging fruit is gone,” McKay said. “We have to look at the whole picture and not just one line item.”

County schools have eaten up an increasing proportion of the county budget — about 53 percent of the county’s general fund of $4 billion, McKay said.

“We wouldn’t transfer over half of our budget to our schools if it wasn’t one of our highest priorities,” he said. But, he argued, the cuts in other county services that would have to be made to accommodate concerns about class size and school programs also could have detrimental effects on students and their families.

“If additional funds for schools means less funding for public safety, how does that affect our families?” McKay said. “If we cut library hours or park maintenance, that also hurts families.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
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