October 29, 2013

WARNINGS BY Fairfax school officials about possible cuts to popular programs are the opening salvo in what has come to be an annual battle with county officials over school funding. It is important that school and county officials recognize that, faced with hard choices, preserving the quality of Fairfax public schools is in everyone’s best interests and that they must work together toward that goal.

Fairfax County schools Superintendent Karen Garza won’t release a proposed fiscal 2015 budget until January, with final adoption by the board in May for the year beginning on July 1. But in projecting a budget deficit of $140 million, Ms. Garza last week outlined a range of possibilities to achieve savings. Included were proposals to increase class sizes, eliminate a foreign language instruction program and furlough staff. No final recommendations have been made, and some county officials wondered if the drastic doomsday list — along with a bid to get taxing authority from the state — was compiled with an eye toward pressuring the Fairfax Board of Supervisors into growing the schools budget by more than the expected 2 percent.

“We’re not crying wolf. This is a real crisis,” school board member and budget committee chair Ted Velkoff (At Large) told a group of parents. School officials argue that county funding simply hasn’t kept pace with the needs of a system that has seen an increase of 15,000 students in the last five years and must contend with the challenges of changing student demographics. Upping the ante of that argument, school board members voted last week to seek authority from the state for fiscal autonomy and taxing ability.

Getting that authority, which would require amending the state constitution and putting the issue on a ballot referendum, is probably as realistic as the expectation of significant added revenue. Fairfax, which already gives more than 50 percent of its budget to the school system, is confronting challenges caused by the slow recovery and cuts in federal spending; county officials are understandably reluctant to increase taxes on their equally hard-pressed residents. School officials should give a fine-tooth analysis to the system’s operations, determine the most urgent needs and provide an honest bottom line of what’s needed to maintain good schools.