Dear Extra Credit,
How does the School Board determine how school funding should be allocated to the different schools and centers throughout the county? What is the school improvement schedule, and how does it affect year-to-year school funding?
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Figuring out what is going on in your schools is not always easy. The accounts children bring home, though colorful, may not be entirely accurate. Notes sent home get lost. Neighborhood chatter is unreliable.
To help, Post staff writer Jay Mathews, who has been covering schools for 22 years, will answer a reader question each week -- or maybe two or three if they are easy ones.
Please send your questions -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number -- to Extra Credit, The Washingtom Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. Or send e-mail to email@example.com.
Thomas Jefferson High School
for Science and Technology
Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier gave me the basics. There is a capital budget, which pays for improvements such as new buildings, and an operating budget that pays salaries and other regular, day-to-day school expenses.
On the capital side, the School Board hired an independent consulting firm to study what school renovations were necessary, and the firm laid out a schedule of which should be done first. That approach was designed to remove what is usually a contentious issue from the politics of competing areas of the county. "No school has been moved up on the list dictated by the independent study," Regnier said.
The operating fund money is provided by a formula mostly based on student population, Regnier said, but there are complications. Extra state and federal funds pay for certain kinds of students, such as those with disabilities, those whose parents' incomes are low enough to qualify for federal help and those who were brought up in another language and need special help with English.
In some schools, such as the Project Excel program elementary schools that have unusual numbers of low-performing children and your high school with its special science and technology emphasis, the teachers have higher salaries because they have agreed to work more hours.
Politics, of course, still influences the funding process. The School Board's decision to start International Baccalaureate programs at Mount Vernon and J.E.B. Stuart high schools in 1993 is a good example, and is important because it led to a blossoming of IB schools in Fairfax County and elsewhere in the area.
Kristen J. Amundson, now a state delegate, represented the Mount Vernon area on the county School Board at that time. More low-income families were moving into those neighborhoods, and middle-class families were thinking of abandoning the public schools. She thought getting IB would help make Mount Vernon High more attractive, but as a Democrat her position on the board was weak. A Republican Party majority had captured the county Board of Supervisors and was moving to appoint a majority of Republicans to the School Board. (Board members were not elected then.)
So Amundson found an ally, a Republican board member named Ruth Turner, who had the same concerns about her neighborhood high school, Stuart. They lobbied other board members, cutting deal after deal to gather support for their pet project. Amundson went to every member of the board, asking them what they wanted in return. She told friends that the other board members didn't know the difference between the IB and the NCAA, but they knew that it wasn't going to affect their constituents one way or another and that by voting for it, they could get something for themselves from Amundson and Turner.
Amundson told me she ought to have had a card printed up to remind her, whenever she voted for a new playground in somebody else's neighborhood, that it was an IB vote. By early 1993, the board had passed a budget item with money for the new program at Mount Vernon and Stuart, and both programs proved to be successful, a triumph for old-fashioned politicking in School Board budgeting.
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