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.