Fairfax school board approves budget

The Fairfax County School Board on Thursday approved next year’s $2.5 billion budget, which includes money to increase teacher salaries, expand foreign language instruction for elementary students and hire more mental health professionals.

The budget, approved in an 8 to 4 vote, represents a 1.1 percent increase from last year’s spending plan for the region’s largest school system, with about 181,500 students.

Under the final budget, a teacher earning an average salary, about $60,000, will receive an additional $720 next year and $1,200 in 2015.

“Pay for our teachers was a key concern in crafting this budget,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason), who chairs the budget committee. “We fear excellent people may leave [Fairfax] simply because they are offered higher pay” in neighboring districts.

The board opted to give the school system’s 26,100 employees a 2 percent market-scale adjustment beginning in January, at a cost of about $22 million. Last year, the School Board gave employees a raise of about 2.2 percent in take-home pay.

The budget also includes money to expand foreign language instruction to five new elementary schools and to support gifted and talented programs for at-risk elementary students.

In addition, the board approved $1.4 million to hire five school psychologists and nine social workers to address a shortage of mental health professionals and rising concern about depression in the county.

“These positions are worth every penny because you can’t put a price on life,” said Patty Reed (Providence), who co-wrote the amendment with Megan McLaughlin (Braddock).

In a 2011 survey, about 30 percent of Fairfax students reported feeling depressed and 16 percent said they had thought about suicide during the previous year.

Evans said at the meeting that depression and anxiety among students was a major concern and said “it’s not overstating to call it a crisis.”

Kim Dockery, the assistant superintendent for special services, said in an interview that the 14 additional mental health professionals will allow the school system to “see where our hotspots of need are and work on getting resources to where students need more access.”

At Thursday’s meeting, the board spent much of its time discussing teacher compensation.

Funding for this year’s raises will be supplemented by $6.3 million in a one-time payment through an initiative by Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

But a portion of the raises will be used to cover costs related to employees’ mandated contributions to a state retirement program. That means the average employee earning $60,000 will net only an extra $330 in 2014 and $810 in 2015 after the deductions.

The board also unanimously passed an amendment committing itself to additional raises in 2015 through a step increase on the salary scale.

School Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said that, despite the board’s commitment, he was not optimistic that step increases will be possible next year, calling the proposal “a promise that once again will go unfilled.”

Board members Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee), Janie Strauss (Dranesville), Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), Ilryong Moon (At Large), Reed and McLaughlin supported the final budget.

Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), Kathy Smith (Sully), Ted Velkoff (At Large) and McElveen voted against it.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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