Fairfax County schools facing $30 million shortfall after tax decision

A 1-cent budget decision in Fairfax County could leave the school system with a $30 million shortfall, part of a showdown over the county’s fiscal 2014 finances that has the School Board looking for cuts.

County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. had suggested raising next year’s real estate tax rate by 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, but the Board of Supervisors opted last month for a 1-cent increase. That decision is largely responsible for the school system’s projected shortfall, school officials say.

Although $30 million amounts to not much more than 1 percent of a $2.5 billion school budget, the School Board is facing other fiscal challenges and is trying to carve out funds for employee raises.

“As a School Board, we don’t having taxing authority,” Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), said at Monday’s board workshop. “We don’t have a voice. But if only they had done that extra 1-cent increase.”

As the School Board works to complete next year’s budget, it also wants to address projected funding shortfalls on the horizon. The school system faces an estimated $130 million shortfall for fiscal 2015.

“My goal is to leave you in the best fiscal position possible,” the outgoing superintendent, Jack D. Dale, told the board at the work session Monday. His term ends July 1.

To deal with the $30 million gap, the board might forgo expanding the world languages program and the gifted education program, and it might reduce funding to replace some of the school system’s aging fleet of 1,600 buses. The official school budget is scheduled to be presented at a meeting May 9.

This year, the board requested a 5 percent increase in county financial support, which funds more than 70 percent of the school budget. Citing the slow economic recovery, some county supervisors said the request was too bold. Instead, the supervisors approved a 2 percent increase.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said the School Board needs to be more realistic and to do more with less. He also said the school system should try to work within the constraints of the economic situation instead of resorting to politics.

“Telling the public to lobby the Board of Supervisors for more money isn’t the answer, because the money isn’t there,” Cook said. “I just don’t think they’ve done the planning.”

Cook said the School Board did not prepare for a potential budget shortfall, despite forecasts of a tight budget year.

School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said costs related to student enrollment are unavoidable. Enrollment is expected to increase by about 2,500 students, to more than 184,000, in the coming school year.

The supervisors have frozen salaries for the county’s 12,000 employees and have told the School Board to reconsider its plan to give raises to teachers. The county’s two teachers unions, on the other hand, have criticized the School Board about workloads and compensation, and several nearby school districts, including Montgomery County’s, plan to give raises of up to 3 percent next year.

The Fairfax school system is touted by the administration as one of the best in the country, but the pay scale for teachers has become less competitive. Potential candidates, some School Board members say, are seeking employment in neighboring counties because of the higher salaries.

“I’m still holding out hope that we could give our employees some kind of raise,” said Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), who taught in county schools for almost a decade.

Corinne Reilly contributed to this report.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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