In Fairfax, county and school leaders meet to discuss projected budget shortfall

November 27, 2013

Fairfax county leaders spoke frankly yet cordially as supervisors and school board members gathered Tuesday to discuss next year’s budget.

County executive Ed Long said the schools and county supervisors face a “daunting task,” as they look to fund operations and services.

“Even though budget times are tough we have to continue to invest,” Long said. “If we don’t those [programs] will deteriorate.”

Fairfax County schools superintendent Karen Garza said that her administration is considering significant cuts to address a projected nine-figure deficit. She said that the supervisors’ earlier suggested 2 percent increase in funding from the county would not be sufficient to fund the schools. More than half of the county’s coffers already goes toward school funding.

“I don’t want to be melodramatic but a two percent increase will be devastating for our system,” Garza said.

School board member Megan McLaughlin said she had trouble explaining to constituents how Fairfax — one of the wealthiest counties in the country — struggled to meet a multimillion-dollar shortfall. Garza said that new calculations showed the administration faces a projected $132.6 million deficit. With a 2 percent increase in county funds, Garza said, the projected deficit would be $98.3 million.

“I’ve never seen a more difficult challenge in front of us because the figures cannot be disputed,” McLaughlin said of the projected deficit.

Long said that other counties have weathered the recent economic downturn better than Fairfax. He said Montgomery County, for instance, has a diversified revenue stream that includes income taxes while Fairfax depends almost entirely on real estate taxes. While the residential market shows improvement, Long said, commercial office buildings are experiencing the highest vacancy rates in about 20 years.

Garza, who pledged at a community meeting in November to include compensation increase in her budget proposal, told the supervisors that “we’re concerned about keeping the best teachers in our classrooms.”

Teacher salaries lag in Fairfax compared to neighboring districts, and the administration is losing valuable employees to competing school systems, school officials said.

Garza said a step increase to employee salaries would cost about $42.7 million. A step increase just for teachers would cost $29.6 million.

School board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said Fairfax should look to Montgomery County for inspiration and diversify its revenue income to include a possible meals tax.

Sharon Bulova, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said she was concerned about placing a meals tax on a ballot to voters while many residents are still hurting financially from the effects of the recession. She noted that a meals tax referendum failed in 1992.

“If it failed again, I don’t see us putting that to a referendum again at least for a generation,” Bulova said.

School board member Patty Reed (Providence) said that the tight budget times calls for an opportunity to be innovative.

“We need to reinvent ourselves,” Reed said. “To me, I’m hopeful that we can take a look at all this information and realize maybe it’s time we do things a little differently.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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