The Post’s View

Fairfax schools must get real about their budget

FAIRFAX SCHOOLS Superintendent Karen Garza has said it would be “absolutely devastating” and a “travesty” if the schools don’t receive a 5.7 percent increase in county funding. Such rhetoric, even by the standards of recurring pitched budget battles between school and county officials, seems a bit extreme. It is also unlikely to get Ms. Garza’s system more than double the amount of money that county officials say they can afford. So it is time for school officials to find workable solutions to the genuine budget challenges they face.

The $2.5 billion budget proposal for the 2014-15 school year, released this month by Ms. Garza, seeks $98 million more in funds from the Board of Supervisors than the schools received last year. Under the proposal, teachers and other school employees would receive raises at a cost of $41 million while some programs would be cut, class sizes increased and testing fees for advanced placement courses transferred to students. Not figured into the calculations is $27 million in extra state aid that is included in the budget submitted by former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and that county officials predict will likely be approved — and perhaps even increased — by the General Assembly.

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But even an infusion of state money exceeding projections won’t be enough to fund a budget based on unrealistic expectations of what the county will provide. “A wing and a prayer” is how school board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), speaking at a recent work session, characterized the school system’s chances of getting a 5.7 percent increase. County officials have told the schools to expect an increase of 2 percent.

School officials argue that county funding has not kept pace with student growth. The average annual increase from the county to the schools from 2010 to 2014 has been 1.1 percent while enrollment increased during that same period by 8.9 percent. Per-pupil spending has remained flat; teacher salaries have not kept up with those in some area districts. And the system faces increased costs from health-care expenses and employer contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.

But the slowed economy created problems for everyone. Taxpayers were stretched; county government cut back. The school system used one-time resources including federal stimulus funds to avoid making hard decisions and to paper over a structural deficit. The revelation by The Post’s T. Rees Shapiro that the system used end-of-year fund balances for items not budgeted undermined claims of a system always operating on a shoestring.

“I am looking at this budget and seeing stuff we could do without,” said school board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) during the work session. “Do I publicly say we don’t need 5.7 percent?” she asked. The answer is yes.

County officials agree on the importance of maintaining the quality of Fairfax schools. They also agree with school officials that all problems can’t be resolved in a year and that a multi-year strategy is needed. Let’s hope these agreements provides some common ground in setting priorities and coming up with the monies to fund them.

 
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