Big Cuts In Fairfax Schools Proposed
Friday, January 11, 2008
Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale yesterday unveiled what officials called the most austere schools spending plan in more than a decade, proposing to raise average class size, reduce summer school courses, cut subsidies for Advanced Placement test fees and trim a program that helps low-income and minority students prepare for college.
The proposed $2.3 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year is a watershed for a 165,000-student system that cultivates a reputation as one of the largest and best in the country. Annual spending would rise 3.3 percent under Dale's plan, to help pay for salary increases, an unexpected increase in enrollment and other expenses. In some recent years, spending had grown at twice that rate or more.
For a superintendent to offer significant cuts in educational initiatives at the outset of a budget season is rare in Fairfax. But Dale's opening proposal, subject to School Board and then county government approval, reflects the reality of a depressed housing market that is straining budgets throughout the Washington area.
Dale said the cuts would take the school system only halfway toward bridging a projected $100 million budget shortfall. He said he hopes the county will fill the rest of the shortage. Dale called it a "fiscally responsible budget" that reflects increased enrollment and community expectations for a world-class system. "We cannot afford to cut any deeper than this," he said.
Supervisors told school officials during the summer that the county could not absorb any new school costs this year. County revenue, primarily drawn from property tax, makes up more than 70 percent of the school system budget.
"Schools are our number one priority," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). But he said other county departments are making larger cuts. For schools, he said, "straight-lining the budget from last year, that is the best we are going to do."
The School Board will hold a hearing on Dale's proposal Feb. 6 and can make additions or subtractions before sending it to the supervisors. A final budget is expected to be approved in late May and would take effect July 1.
Dale's proposal accounts for an unanticipated growth of 1,600 students in county schools this school year and 1,000 more who officials expect will enroll next fall. To offset expenses, Dale suggested cutting 160 teaching positions, through attrition and increasing average class size for general education programs by about half a student a class to save $11 million. As a result, he said, there would probably be more classes in elementary schools with combined grade levels and fewer advanced or elective classes in high schools.
Dale also proposed eliminating 111 teaching assistant positions through attrition, to save nearly $4 million, and suggested $10 million in cuts in administrative posts and services based in the central office.
The superintendent also seeks to increase some fees for parents and students. Under his proposal, high school athletes could be required to pay $50 to play on a team. Many families also would be asked to write checks for AP, International Baccalaureate and Preliminary SAT tests. The school system now pays for such tests to encourage students to take challenging courses and pursue higher education. Dale's proposal would waive testing fees only for students whose family income is low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Some other trims would affect programs that serve low-income or minority students, including one that prepares such students for more rigorous high school classes or entrance into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and another that helps steer them toward college. Dale said the school system would provide similar services in other ways.
The biggest cuts, saving $14 million, would come from overhauling a summer school program that serves up to 30,000 students. Dale said that the program is inefficient and that school officials are looking for ways to tailor course offerings to individual schools rather than relying on countywide programs. Such changes will take time, Dale said, and the school system "will not be offering the same level of services" this summer.
Dale's plan seeks to protect some of his priorities. An expansion of foreign language instruction in elementary schools and full-day kindergarten would remain on schedule. The budget would also add money to fund Dale's initiative to increase the number of teachers who are on extended annual contracts, paying them during summer months when most teachers are off work. Dale hopes these teachers will help redesign and staff more effective summer school programs.
The budget includes a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for employees, which is lower, officials said, than what was proposed in at least one other local system.
Parent reaction to Dale's plan is expected to be mixed.
Terry Tuley, a parent of a recent Fairfax high school graduate, said during last night's meeting that she would rather see more money spent on improving the schools' transportation system and adjusting school start times than on extending teachers' annual contracts.
"I think he's going to get some push-back on that," she said.
Several School Board members, including Judith "Tessie" Wilson (Braddock) and Kathy L. Smith (Sully), said they were concerned about Dale's plan to pass on activity and testing fees to students. "This is painful," said Deirdra M. McLaughlin, the school system's chief financial officer. "If these cuts are made . . . there's nobody in the school community who won't feel it."