Fairfax schools chief unveils new budget plan

Teachers will receive salary increases and students taking advanced classes won’t have to pay testing fees under a new budget plan presented by superintendent Karen Garza late Monday to the Fairfax County school board.

Garza’s presentation on the budget came on the eve of the Fairfax board of supervisors final budget meeting Tuesday to approve the county’s overall spending plan for 2015. The supervisors voted 7 to 3 last week to give the schools a 3 percent increase in county funding next year. Earlier this year, Garza had requested a 5.7 percent increase in local funding for the schools’ $2.5 billion budget and Monday’s meeting represented her first chance to describe how the administration will address the shortfall.

“The board of supervisors made their decision now its on our part,” she said.

Garza said that the schools likely will receive close to $30 million in additional revenue from the state that will partly fill the hole in the schools budget, leaving the administration with a $17 million projected shortfall. The schools had planned originally to give teachers and staff $41 million in salary increases but the lower-than-expected funding from the supervisors had derailed that plan, Garza said. Instead, she proposed delayed salary raises that would come into effect for 75 percent of all eligible employees by November 2014. The new proposal means that the salary raises will be smaller than Garza had planned. But by delaying the step increases the school system will save $12 million and fulfill a promise the school board made last year to provide employees with significant raises in 2015.

Garza also proposed covering $4 million in testing fees for students taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. Garza said the school system cannot require students to take the tests at the end of the courses without paying the fees. She also said that instituting the fees as the school system had planned earlier would have discouraged student participation in the advanced classes.

“Students see this as an additional barrier that we don’t need to put in front of them,” Garza said. Besides, she noted, “the 4 million is not going to make that much difference in the scheme of things.”

School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said that she did not approve of aspects of Garza’s new plan, including lowering the total amount for employee salary increases.

“This shortfall is going to come off of employee compensation,” McLaughlin said, before referring to a “menu” of cuts Garza had presented earlier in the year to help address a projected budget deficit. “I don’t think that where we are with this is honoring what we told the public. There’s a long list of other places to look for money if we need to.”

McLaughlin also told board members that families should pay for AP and IB test fees. Other school board members disagreed.

The AP tests will cost $81 per exam next school year, while the total fees for students seeking an IB diploma will total $783 in 2014.

School board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said that if the administration does not cover the fees some families with multiple students taking IB classes may pay hundreds of dollars a year.

McLaughlin said the vast majority of students who take the AP and IB tests are teens who do not qualify for free and reduced meals, a federal measure of poverty. She said that the $4 million could go toward reducing class sizes for schools with at-risk students or a pre-K waiting list with 800 children seeking to enroll in Head Start in the county.

The money “could easily be directed toward our neediest students in a better way,” McLaughlin said, noting that instead the administration may spend the money paying testing fees for students who come from wealthier families.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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