When Fairfax County’s school superintendent, Karen Garza, took office in July, she faced a dire outlook for fiscal 2015, with some internal projections showing a $140 million budget shortfall.
In her first months as leader of the school system, Garza often described the situation she had inherited as a “crisis.”
After lengthy political negotiations, community meetings and some number crunching, Garza announced her final, $2.5 billion budget proposal late Monday, still calling for significant teacher raises and waiving testing fees for advanced classes. The administration would have about a month to address a remaining projected shortfall in Garza’s spending plan: $1.7 million in all.
“I think that we do have a path forward that I’m comfortable with,” Garza said.
On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors officially approved a 3 percent increase in local funding for the schools, which Garza and School Board members deemed a blow to the school system. Garza had argued that any local funding increase less than her 5.7 percent request “would be a travesty.”
But Garza’s newest budget proposal includes $96 million in cuts and $30 million in additional — and unexpected — revenue from the state, making up nearly all of the potential deficit. Garza also revised her initial proposal of $41 million to save an additional $12 million. But the new plan leaves teachers and other employees with smaller raises than Garza had hoped they would get.
The vast majority of eligible teachers will receive raises known as “step increases” that will be delayed until November. Pay increases for teachers would average 2 percent.
Garza’s proposal also calls for $4 million to cover testing fees for students taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, costs the school system originally planned to pass on to families.
Notably, Garza did not reverse class-size increases or restore funding for teachers assigned to work with students struggling with academics. More than 720 staff positions will be eliminated under Garza’s proposal.
Some School Board members said aspects of the new proposal are worrisome. Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) noted that last year the board passed a resolution calling for bigger raises than Garza would offer.
“This shortfall is going to come off of employee compensation,” McLaughlin said. “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 referred to a “menu” of optional cuts that Garza had offered earlier in the budget process, suggesting that the board could do a better job of sharing the burden of spending cuts.
The School Board in recent years has used millions of dollars left over at the end of one fiscal year to help pay for the next year’s budget. The fiscal 2015 budget is no different, with more than $48 million from 2014 helping to bridge the gap. Garza’s administration has long counted on those funds as part of its budget planning, but Garza said the administration is trying reduce the amount left over at the end of each fiscal year.
On Monday, Garza presented an early draft of a fiscal 2016 budget, which again would call for raises: a 2.5 percent step increase and a 1 percent market scale adjustment. In all, the budget draft projects a $39.5 million shortfall.
Last week, the supervisors advised the schools to expect the same 3 percent increase in local funding that they received for next year.