Although the Fairfax County School Board faces projected budget deficits and each year asks the Board of Supervisors for more taxpayer money to fund its regular operations, it also has found a creative way to pay for projects and add items to classrooms: a fund filled with millions in leftover cash.
Fairfax’s school system has ended each budget year with an average of $30 million in unspent funds from the system’s budget during the past decade, a budget that topped out at $2.5 billion this past year. The leftover cash, ranging from $4 million to $55 million, is usually generated from savings — such as heating bills that are lower than projected during a mild winter — or from unforeseen revenue increases, including income that was higher than expected from county sales taxes.
The leftover money accounts for about 1 to 2 percent of the school system’s annual budget, but that portion often amounts to a considerable sum worth tens of millions of dollars that can be used at the School Board’s discretion. Over the past 10 years, the leftover funds have added up to more than $305 million.
While the board often elects to use the extra funds to balance the following year’s budget, a sizable figure has been used for what amounts to a school system wish list. The outlays in recent years have included $400,000 for BlackBerry smartphones for administrative staff, $500,000 for adding automatic external defibrillators at schools, $693,000 to place assistant principals in all elementary schools and $375,000 to expand a culinary arts program.
All while the School Board has stared down deficits. In 2015, for example, the school system must address a projected $195 million deficit driven by rising enrollment figures and compensation needs. The school system had about $55 million left over this year and will use about $10 million of that to purchase new school buses and add three positions to the system’s legal staff.
Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, said he thinks the school system’s millions of dollars in leftover cash are a symptom of a larger problem. He said the extra money, when combined with tens of millions of dollars in reserves and other “extraneous” items, suggests significant “padding” in the annual budget.
“It is suspect,” Purves said, adding that, as a “persnickety tax watchdog,” he thinks the school system budget is bloated with such expenses.
State law requires the district to fully fund the schools budget, according to Kristen Michael, director of budget services for Fairfax schools. The school system does not lose unspent money allotted in the annual budget.
“We tend to be conservative in budgeting both our revenues and our expenditures” to ensure compliance with the law, Michael said.
Across the Washington region, school districts handle leftover money from their annual budgets differently, although few use the funds for purchases.
In Loudoun County, unspent money from the schools budget transfers back to the Board of Supervisors. Loudoun’s preliminary estimates show that there will be no undesignated funds left this year, and in previous years the county has had “minimal funds unspent,” said Wayde Byard, a schools spokesman.
Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said budget surpluses traditionally are used “as a source of revenue to fund future operating budgets.”
In Arlington, Assistant Superintendent for Budget and Finance Deirdra McLaughlin said that in recent years the county’s schools have used leftover funds for textbooks, buses, capital projects and one-time salary payments.
This past year, the leftover money in Fairfax started a turf war after the School Board opted to spend real money on fake grass and not dead trees. In July, the board approved spending $1.5 million of this year’s leftover cash to help fund the construction of 15 synthetic turf athletic fields across the county. To do so, the board removed $1.9 million in funding for new elementary school science textbooks.
For some Fairfax educators, it was an indication that athletics take precedence over academics. It also was seen as yet another slight for teachers in Fairfax, where the pay lags behind that of several nearby school districts. Some educators argued that a portion of the leftover money would have been better spent on teacher raises, rather than fields of fake plastic grass.
“Teachers are upset in general,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association. “There’s no plan in place to make teachers whole after cuts all these years.”
County officials said they decided to spend a relatively small amount of the surplus funds on turf fields to bring poorer schools in line with wealthier schools that have new fields, which were funded in large part with the support of wealthy Fairfax parents through booster clubs and community sports organizations. Most of the 15 new fields will be placed at high schools with large numbers of students who receive free or reduced price meals, a federal measure of poverty.
Fairfax officials said they take pride in the county’s 67 turf fields — by far the most among Washington region counties: Arlington has 10, Prince William has nine, Loudoun has five and Montgomery has four.
Teachers, residents and county officials agree that the new fields will promote physical health and well-being. The synthetic fields do not require water, expensive fertilizers and pesticides and never need to be mowed. The all-weather turf fields can be used year-round, which increases play time for kids.
Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said he supported the turf field initiative.
“Those communities have been waiting for those fields for a long time — it’s an equity issue,” Greenburg said. “The real question is: Are turf fields more important than science readers?”
What concerned some educators was the principle of prioritizing the capital project above the needs of the school system’s teacher workforce, which has recorded historically low morale in recent years. In May, the School Board passed a motion pledging to consider salary increases in the next fiscal year.
Kathy L. Smith (Sully) was the only School Board member to vote against the amendment to fund the turf fields.
“Teachers are concerned. I understand that,” Smith said. “It does send a message. . . . My conscience told me that it was not the right thing to do right now.”
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said members of the community complained about the price tag of the turf fields, which were jointly funded by the School Board and the Board of Supervisors.
But, Cook said, the amount of money was small compared with the rest of the budget.
“The amounts of money being talked about — a couple of million dollars — while that’s obviously a significant amount of money, it’s not enough to affect teacher pay raises,” Cook said.
Members of the School Board and the county board have battled for years over school funding, and the schools rely on the supervisors for more than 70 percent of the system’s budget, according to school documents.
This year, the School Board requested that the supervisors increase the county transfer by $90 million in an effort to give teachers modest raises. Instead, the supervisors approved a $33 million increase. The approximately $57 million difference was close to what the school system had left over this year.
“The schools told us that without a bigger increase in transfer they could not give their employees raises,” Cook said. “We did not give them the increase they wanted, but they gave a 2 percent raise anyway when we ended up freezing salaries for county employees. That hurt the School Board’s credibility. It was like crying wolf.”
School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said that because of immigration and birth rates, the school system is growing faster than the county can fund it. Which means that every year the school system must hire more teachers and try to keep those with experience in Fairfax classrooms, despite the higher salaries offered in neighboring districts.
“We obviously have to shepherd our dollars carefully,” Strauss said. “We have to run a balanced budget . . . but on the schools side, we must educate every child. It’s not like we get to the limit and say that’s it. We have to let them in.”