Fairfax schools chief to propose deep cuts


Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

Fairfax County schools Superintendent Karen Garza says she will propose significant cuts to address a projected $140 million budget deficit, a plan that suggests classroom staff reductions, furloughs, increased class sizes and eliminating a foreign language instruction program in the elementary schools.

Garza, who joined Fairfax in July, is scheduled to present her budget outline to the school board at a public meeting Monday, and it reflects a dire fiscal outlook. Her first major move as schools chief targets some prized programs amid more than 50 suggested cuts, including eliminating 1,722 staff positions through attrition and perhaps layoffs. The staff cuts would affect custodians, kindergarten teachers and assistant principals, among others. Another of her suggestions is a $100 per-sport user fee for student athletics.

“This is one of the most difficult challenges we have ever faced in Fairfax County public schools,” Garza said. “We find ourselves in a place where we will have to make cuts and it will affect schools, it will affect student programming, unfortunately, and it will affect just the operation of our system as a whole. So it’s to the bone, I would say.”

The county’s $2.5 billion schools budget serves 184,500 students this year. Although Fairfax has long enjoyed a strong reputation for education, it now faces tough financial choices as the school system continues to grow with funding that has not kept pace.

During the past five years, the schools have seen a surge in student enrollment as the county continues to attract immigrants and families seeking a top public education. Enrollment has increased by 15,000 students since 2008, outpacing school funding from the county, schools administrators said. At the same time, populations of students taking classes for English as a second language and those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals — a measure of poverty — have climbed dramatically.

Garza’s proposals will begin what has become an annual showdown between the schools and the county Board of Supervisors, which allocates a majority of the school board’s funds. Garza and others in the school system said the cuts will be apparent and likely will diminish the quality of programs.

School board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large) said that such significant cuts threaten the school system’s foundation.

“We won’t be Fairfax anymore,” Moon said.

Among the proposals Garza will present to the board, she suggests increasing class sizes by an average of one student, for a savings of about $25 million and a reduction of about 400 staff positions; gutting a foreign language in elementary schools program, for a savings of about $5.5 million and a reduction of about 62.5 staff positions; and cutting 12 assistant principal positions, for a savings of about $1.3 million.

The possible increase in class size would be the third time in recent years the school system sought to reduce costs by altering student-teacher ratios.

“Increasing the class size ratio again, while it would save a significant amount of money, is very worrisome,” said school board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill). “Some elementary schools in Vienna already have class sizes over 30 in some grades.”

Fairfax already has among the largest class sizes in the region, according to data from the Washington Area Boards of Education.

Other options, Garza said, include changing the staffing ratios for kindergarten classes, and eliminating positions for librarians, school psychologists and social workers, secretaries and custodians.

The county finds itself facing massive cuts because the cost of doing business has continued to rise while revenue has not kept up, said Susan Quinn, the school system’s chief financial officer. Although the schools have used efficiencies to keep per-pupil costs relatively steady over the past five years, the system’s annual growth of more than 3,000 students has added $25 million in fixed costs each year, Quinn said.

The result this year — combined with costs levied by the state government and higher health insurance rates — is a nine-figure deficit.

The Board of Supervisors told the school board earlier this year to expect a 2 percent increase in the county’s transfer of funds, which equates to $34 million more than last year. Moon said the increase isn’t enough to fund the schools, adding that the board is coming up short because of a reluctance to increase taxes.

“I cannot imagine the Board of Supervisors turning their heads away from not only the challenges, but how devastating it would be if we were fo rced to accept those cuts,” Moon said.

Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said that the schools must live within a budget like other local government agencies, such as the police and fire departments. He said he will carefully examine the targets of the school system’s suggested cuts to ensure they were not chosen for dramatic effect.

“If you can tell by the list of cuts that they are designed to get under our skin, we will let that be known,” Cook said. “The schools should not take this out” on students, he said.

But school board members said the increase the supervisors have offered wouldn’t come close to erasing the deficit nor would it help the school board fulfill a promise to teachers for significant raises.

“We’re not crying wolf. This is a real crisis,” school board member and budget committee chair Ted Velkoff (At Large) told a group of parents last week. Velkoff said in an interview that the school board has projected a deficit and called for help in past years. But in those years, the budget had “wish lists” that included “things that were necessary or the school system is going to fall apart,” Velkoff said.

This year is different, Velkoff said, which is why Garza is proposing such deep cuts.

Among Garza’s more controversial suggestions are those that affect teacher salaries and contracts, as Fairfax officials have bemoaned the fact that the county is no longer competitive with what some of its neighbors offer to teachers.

As part of the budget proposal, Garza suggests a furlough day for all employees next year, for a possible savings of $7.9 million, and cutting all employees’ contract lengths by one day, for a savings of about $9 million.

“Everything is on the table,” Garza said, noting that more than 85 percent of the school budget goes to employee compensation, and salary raises next year are estimated to cost the system about $42 million.

Even as the administration this year will seek to provide salary increases for teachers, the cuts mean that staff ranks may thin. Garza said she will be looking for a balance: “How do we increase compensation for our employees and have fewer employees?” Garza said. “So it’s not that salary increases are completely off the table. It means we have to cut more to get there.”

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the largest school employee organization, said that “teachers will leave otherwise without compensation increases.”

Garza agreed, noting that Fairfax loses seasoned employees to other school districts every year. “We have to retain our best in our classrooms if we want to protect our system long term,” Garza said.

Velkoff, the school board budget chair, said that without an increase in revenue from the county, which in turn would require raising taxes, only additional cuts would lead to pay raises.

“The only way we can give a step is if we increase class size; I don’t see any other way it’s possible,” Velkoff said. “Everybody’s going to share the pain. . . . How much are they willing to tolerate to keep taxes down?”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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