Parking lots an example of Fairfax schools’ economic gap

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Samuel Hall Sr. directs student drivers out of Langley High School's student parking lot after school is dismissed on Thursday in McLean.

(Jahi Chikwendiu/ The Washington Post ) - Samuel Hall Sr. directs student drivers out of Langley High School's student parking lot after school is dismissed on Thursday in McLean.

The annual fees students pay for parking spaces at Fairfax County’s high schools provide thousands of dollars principals can use to purchase such classroom enhancements as iPads and computers, but school records show that the county’s poorest students are most often shortchanged because their schools make far less in parking money.

County schools take in more than $1 million a year in student parking fees, and some high schools make more than $10,000 annually from the revenue. But other schools in poorer areas of the county make as little as $465, leaving them with far less discretionary cash.

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“There’s some things I wish we had that I could provide with extra revenue,” said Nardos King, principal of Mount Vernon High School near Alexandria, where more than half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. “I just wish it didn’t always come down to those who can afford it and those who can’t. It’s quite clear that my parking lot is empty for a reason.”

A parking tag for the school year costs $200, and some students are eligible for subsidies. High school principals keep 15 percent of the fees, or $30 for each space sold. On average, schools earn $7,400 each year from parking revenue, money that typically goes to purchase technology — such as interactive whiteboards — or security upgrades.

Schools that make less obviously have less to spend. School board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said that can create an unfair disadvantage.

“It creates a potential equity problem,” Hynes said. “That’s a source of revenue that some schools have and others don’t. . . . It’s a good example of what we’re up against in terms of the disparity in the community and lack of resources across the county.”

That disparity is easy to see in the county schools’ parking lots.

Wealthier schools, with students whose families can afford cars and the fees, sell out their parking spaces. At some schools, parking spots are in such high demand that dozens of students sign up for waiting lists or park in overflow lots.

At James Madison High School in Vienna, students who miss out on a school space can pay to park at a nearby Elks lodge. Administrators at Langley High School in McLean, where about 2 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, said that the school earned $13,890 last year in parking fees.

Poorer schools sell virtually no spots, according to data obtained by The Washington Post. Mount Vernon earned $465 in parking revenue last year — less than the cost of one new iPad Air.

Joan Daly, president of the Falls Church High School Parent, Teacher, Student Association, said it is unfortunate that schools with a higher ratio of poor students take the biggest hit.

At Falls Church, where 57 percent of the students qualify for subsidized meals, the administration sold 68 of 120 parking spaces as of Oct. 15. Because some of the spaces are subsidized, the parking fees brought in about $1,600 to the school.

“There are so many examples where things are not equitable,” Daly said, pointing out that other PTSAs in the county are well-funded with donations from wealthy families. “It’s something we can’t compete with.”

Mount Vernon senior Kimberly Mertens said she parks in the neighborhood near school so she can avoid paying for a space.

“It’s crazy — there’s no need to pay $200,” said Mertens, 17. But where she pays a price is with her time — there is a daily rush to find street parking, Mertens said. “If you’re late, then you’re out of luck.”

Mount Vernon senior Maddie Pessel, 17, said that parking in the neighborhood surrounding the school brings the risk of costly parking tickets. Pessel’s parents decided to help her cover the $200 parking fee so she didn’t have to spend more time in the mornings looking for parking.

“Having a spot guarantees I don’t have to panic to get to school on time,” said Passel, one of a handful of Mount Vernon students who pay to park there.

Fairfax Schools Superintendent Karen Garza said the disparity in parking revenue is a problem that mirrors similar issues throughout the county.

“Some of our schools have greater ability to generate additional revenue to support their schools in many areas, not just parking,” Garza said, noting that PTSAs and booster clubs can raise thousands of dollars in their communities, something that often benefits wealthier areas. “That’s a reality everywhere.”

Garza said that the school system aims to offset the problem by providing schools with higher populations of poor students, such as Mount Vernon, with other forms of funding.

Although the parking fees make up a small fraction of the school system’s $2.5 billion annual budget, the school board faces a nine-figure shortfall next year and is considering additional student fees to help boost revenues. One of the options includes a $100 per-sport fee for students to participate in athletics, which finance officials said could bring in an additional $1.8 million.

Student fees from parking, instrument rentals for music classes and tuition for programs added up to about $18.2 million in revenue, according to Fairfax schools budget documents. Last year, county schools collected $1,056,639 in parking revenue.

Garza said that “everything is on the table” as the school system seeks to address the projected $140 million shortfall.

Raising parking fees is not currently an option, Garza said, but it has been used by previous Fairfax administrations to help offset dwindling revenue.

In 1991, the school system began charging $100 to students for parking “to partially offset a decline in revenue from state and local sources,” according to budget documents. In 2002, the fee was increased to $150, and in 2009, it was raised again to $200, which brought an additional $300,000 and was used to add 3.6 positions to the staffing rolls. Susan Quinn, the Fairfax schools chief financial officer, wrote in 2011 that raising the fees to $250 would likely bring in an additional $230,000.

In other school districts, principals may keep a bigger portion of the revenue from parking. In Arlington County, the three high schools retain all parking fees. Washington-Lee and Yorktown high schools charge students $50 to park.

In Montgomery County, the 25 high schools collected $195,368 in parking fees last year. Each school retains its own revenue to use for athletics expenses, schools officials said. In Loudoun County, the school system charges $200 a year for student parking; schools keep $25 from each permit; the rest, about $500,000 total per year, goes back to the central administration’s operating fund.

Garza said that principals are given authority to wield their own budgets as they see fit.

Matt Ragone, principal at Langley, said that in the past, he has used the parking money to purchase copy machines and textbooks.

He also uses the funds to add staff to keep class sizes manageable, because “I can’t possibly have more kids in classrooms,” Ragone said.

He said that he’d reluctantly support a more equitable distribution of the parking fees if it were part of a larger county plan to benefit the neediest schools. But Ragone said he’d prefer that the money raised at Langley stay at Langley.

Chip Comstock, an assistant principal at Oakton High School, which expects to earn about $11,000 in parking fees this year, said that larger schools tend to have bigger parking lots and take in more revenue from the extra spaces.

Two of the biggest, Robinson Secondary and Westfield High, each net more than $12,000 a year.

“Should we pool the money? If I were a small school, I’d say yes,” Comstock said. “Should we keep more of the money? Sure, why not?”

 
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