New Fairfax County schools budget sparks discussion


Fairfax County Superintendent Karen Garza’s $2.5 billion proposed budget calls for nearly $100 million in cuts that could lead to staff layoffs. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

Next year’s proposed budget for Fairfax County schools — which calls for classroom staffing cuts, testing fees for high school students and larger class sizes — left parents, county leaders and teachers questioning the administration’s financial priorities.

New superintendent Karen Garza revealed her $2.5 billion budget proposal on Thursday night, a plan that would increase schools funding but also outlines $96 million in cuts that could lead to hundreds of layoffs. The budget asks that the county’s board of supervisors send $98 million more than it did last year, an increase of 5.7 percent in annual taxpayer funding, while supervisors have said they are only willing to increase their transfer by 2 percent.

Part of Garza’s proposal includes $41 million in salary increases for 95 percent of school employees, who have seen pay freezes during the recession and receive pay that lags behind neighboring school districts.

Supervisors were quick to say the higher request is unrealistic. In the past five years, the board has increased its funding for schools by an average of a little more than 1 percent annually. No increase has exceeded 4 percent since 2007.

Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully) said he was not surprised that the schools requested for such a large budget.

“We can pontificate and posture and argue all we want, but we knew it was going to happen,” Frey said. “We want them to do the dirty work and we want them to do the cuts because we don’t want to be blamed for everything.”

Frey said it is unlikely the schools will receive the 5.7 percent request but that he hoped supervisors could provide more than just 2 percent in a county that prides itself on a high-achieving system, the largest in Virginia. Unless the school board receives taxing authority, the annual budget showdown will continue, he said.

“This will happen every year,” Frey said. “It’s as predictable as the sun coming up.”

Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said that he was encouraged overall by Garza’s proposals but dismayed that the school board has failed to hire an new auditor to find efficiencies in the administration that oversees 184,500 students and 23,00 employees. Not having an auditor is among supervisors’ concerns that the school system’s budgeting process is flawed.

“The school board just doesn’t seem to get it,” Herrity said. “I personally will be hard pressed to vote for an increase in the transfer without that truly independent auditing function in place.”

Garza said that any less than a 5.7 percent increase could be “absolutely devastating,” to the school system, and she had earlier explained the potential need for cuts to popular programs to meet a $130 million projected budget shortfall. Her plan calls for increasing class sizes in elementary and middle schools by half a student on average and a by one student per class at the high school level. A total of 468 classroom teaching positions could be eliminated along with 15 assistant principals.

Garza said that more cuts could be expected if her budget isn’t fully funded, including even larger class-size increases and more layoffs.

“She’s saying that if we go under that line it’s going to be really bad,” said Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. “This is not scare tactics, she’s worried and her concern worries me because its genuine.”

After Garza’s proposed cuts, Greenburg said now it’s up to the county supervisors to meet the schools’ needs.

“She cut as many things as she could without hurting the system,” Greenburg said. “Kids will already be impacted with the cuts we have .”

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents teachers and schools staff, said that the proposed salary raises, known as a step increases, were overdue. But Adams said she worries that eliminating 460 school-based staff could be a “huge burden” to the staff who remain.

“You’ll be increasing the workload for all of the other employees,” Adams said.

Adams said that she was told by schools finance officials that the administration is seeking to lessen its dependence on the millions of dollars in cash that is often leftover from the annual budget. In recent years, that extra money — about $48 million this year — has been used to help fund future needs.

“We are trying to reduce our reliance on one-time funding to meet ongoing expenditures,” schools spokesman John Torre said. “Due to the recession and the current fiscal climate, we’ve been using one-time funding to balance the budget.”

To generate additional revenue, Garza has proposed adding $4 million in testing fees for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, fees that will fall to Fairfax County families.

Hayfield Secondary parent Mike Lambert said that the fees, about $75 per class, could lead students to drop the high-level courses as some parents might find it unaffordable.

“That could be a seriously scandalous issue,” Lambert said.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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