Fairfax County superintendent proposes 9 percent budget increase

January 12, 2012

Fairfax County teachers would receive their largest raise since 2008 and more elementary schools would offer foreign language instruction under a spending plan announced Thursday that reflected hints of optimism after years of grim budgets.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s $2.4 billion proposal for next school year would represent a 9 percent increase over the current budget and the most significant spending jump in five years.

Like Fairfax, jurisdictions across Northern Virginia have begun to emerge from the recession, offering superintendents hope that their next budgets will be less dire than in the recent past.

Spending will continue to be pinched, however. School enrollments are generally ballooning faster than the economy is recovering. And Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has proposed changes — such as nearly doubling employers’ required contributions to pension funds — that are likely to saddle systems with significant new costs.

“It is the beginning of a turnaround,” Dale said, but “it’s not a steep turnaround.” He previewed the plan for reporters Thursday morning on the condition that details not be shared until it was made public at an evening school board meeting.

Schools chiefs in Alexandria and in Arlington and Prince William counties will release their proposed budgets in the next several weeks. In Loudoun County, where school funds have been stagnant for three years, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has said he wants to boost spending nearly 12 percent, to $832 million.

If approved, Hatrick’s proposal would help pay for a 3 percent teacher salary increase, technology upgrades and implementation of full-day kindergarten in some schools.

In Maryland, Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua P. Starr is asking for a 2 percent budget increase, and Prince George’s County Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wants to hold the budget steady. Neither is proposing to invest in new programs.

“It’s not as difficult as it’s been in years past,” said Matthew Stanski, the chief financial officer for Prince George’s schools, “but when you’re losing students, obviously less money is coming in.”

In Fairfax, Dale’s proposal is the opening bid in an annual attempt to wrest more education dollars from county supervisors, who already devote more than half their budget to schools.

Complicating matters, the plan was developed according to priorities outlined by the school board last year. Half that board’s 12 members did not run for re­election. It’s not clear what changes the new board — which will amend and approve the budget — will make in the coming months.

Under Dale’s plan, employees would get a 2 percent cost-of-living raise and “step increases” based on experience and education. Teacher salaries had been frozen for two years until this year, when they went up 1 percent.

Also significant is the request for more than 700 new positions, most of them teachers needed to keep pace with growing student population, Dale said.

Enrollment has topped 177,000 this year, up more than 12,000 students since 2008. It is expected to grow by another 3,900 next school year, with a growing proportion of English-language learners and students in poverty.

Those changing demographics mean the system needs to hire significantly more people, Dale said, because Fairfax sends extra teachers to schools with large populations of needy students.

Summer school, cut during the recession, would be restored for some struggling elementary and middle school students, and teachers — who have asked for workload relief — would be eligible for extended contracts to pay for their work after hours and during the summer.

Elementary-level foreign language classes and immersion programs, available in dozens of schools, would expand into 10 additional schools.

Dale said the system can’t afford to reverse every sacrifice made during the recession. Students would continue to pay a $100 fee to play school sports, for example, and the average class sizes would not be adjusted.

Parents have complained about overly large classes, particularly at affluent schools that don’t get extra teachers under the system’s staffing formula. Dale said Fairfax can’t afford to shrink the student-to-teacher ratio countywide. He proposes setting aside $2 million to pay for more teachers in schools that otherwise would have untenably large classes.

That idea was endorsed by School Board Chairwoman Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), who represents an affluent part of the county where parents have clamored for class-size relief.

“I think it’s the most cost-effective way to address the problem,” she said.

Dale’s budget depends on county supervisors boosting contributions to schools by 8 percent, or $136 million. In November, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said he was aiming for a 5 percent increase — even that amount seems “awfully optimistic,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said in an interview.

The county’s real estate market has begun to recover after the recession, but the growth of property-tax revenue is expected to be modest, according to budget projections.

Dale called his request “very realistic” given the challenges the school system faces.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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