Fairfax school system ends the year with millions in unspent cash, again

The Fairfax County school system ended the past fiscal year with more than $38 million in extra cash, the result of budgeted funds officials did not spend.

Each year, the school system revisits the budget to identify leftover cash that can be used at the school board’s discretion for future projects. The administration plans to use approximately $20 million of this year’s funds to address a projected shortfall of more than $55 million for fiscal 2016.

Schools Superintendent Karen Garza acknowledged that the budget development this year will be similar to last.

The current budget, which took effect July 1, included millions of dollars in cuts and eliminated more than 700 staff positions.

“We know this past year was just the start,” Garza said at a meeting this week. “We aren’t done yet. . . . We still have daunting challenges ahead.”


Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza speaks during a press conference on April 18, 2013. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

As has happened before, the school system ended the year tens of millions of dollars in extra cash. In some years, the school board has had more than $50 million in leftover funds and has opted to use the funds to purchase synthetic playing fields, BlackBerry phones and textbooks.

The school board ended the past fiscal year with almost $38.2 million in “carryover” fund, or about 1.5 percent of the school system’s annual $2.5 billion budget. The money, often a considerable amount worth tens of millions of dollars, can be spent at the school board’s discretion.

This week, the board discussed using the money to pay for new buses and a proposal to eliminate half-day Mondays in elementary schools.

School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) encouraged her colleagues to be mindful of how they use the leftover money.

“These are significant expenses that we as a board are going to own and pay for,” McLaughlin said.

Susan Quinn, the school system’s chief operations officer, said the administration intentionally designs its budget to end each year with extra funds.

“Ever year, we are going to have an ending balance — I can guarantee you that,” Quinn said, noting that the budget office uses conservative estimates of revenue and expenditures in an abundance of caution.

Quinn noted that she anticipates that the annual carryover balance will diminish significantly in coming years as the administration seeks to end each fiscal year with less money unspent.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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