Fairfax's School Board Rejects Some Budget Cuts
Friday, February 15, 2008
The Fairfax County School Board approved a much-debated $2.3 billion annual spending plan last night that preserved some programs the superintendent had proposed cutting to offset declining tax revenue.
The board's budget would avoid proposed testing and activity fees, maintain door-to-door bus service for students in gifted and talented programs and conserve funding for a preschool special education program. Board members debated how to balance realistic economic limitations with a top-tier school system's needs and aspirations. A proposal to increase funding to maintain current class size ratios, instructional assistant staffing levels and other programs divided the board, failing on a 6 to 6 vote.
The remaining program-saving actions added about $8 million to the $55 million school officials had expected to request from the county government to balance the 2008-09 budget for the region's largest school system. It's not clear whether the Board of Supervisors would approve such extra funding or where it would come from. The county budget faces a shortage of at least $200 million.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said yesterday that the county government would work with the school system to avoid drastic cuts. But he warned that "the revenue situation is deteriorating fairly dramatically" and urged the School Board to be realistic.
Superintendent Jack D. Dale recommended last month what officials called the leanest Fairfax school budget since the 1990s, with a cost-of-living increase for teachers of about 3 percent and proposals to raise the average class size slightly countywide and cut or reshape summer school and other programs in the 165,700-student system. Dale sought to eliminate 520 staff positions and require many students to pay fees for Advanced Placement tests and athletics and other activities.
But several of those proposals proved unpopular with parents. So the 12-member board started reshaping the plan before yesterday's meeting. The final vote came near midnight.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the school system's spending level at the end of April, and the School Board is expected to pass its final budget in May. The spending plan will take effect July 1.
Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said yesterday that the School Board recognized the tough financial climate but wanted a spending plan that "does not do too much damage to our ability to continue to be a high-performing school system."
On a 10 to 2 vote, the board approved an amendment by Niedzielski-Eichner to Dale's plan that would preserve funding for a program that helps minority students prepare for college. The amendment also would maintain the current class size for special education preschool programs, subsidies for testing and activities, and bus routes for those at gifted and talented centers. Dale had proposed cuts in those programs.
To save money, Niedzielski-Eichner's proposal would slow the expansion of full-day kindergarten and foreign language programs in elementary schools. Overall, the plan would increase the county's share of the budget by about $63 million over the current budget, or about $8 million more than Dale requested. The amendment included an additional $1.2 million proposed initially by Tessie Wilson (Braddock) to fully fund the current level of instructional assistants for the special education preschool program. Kaye Kory (Mason) and James L. Raney (At Large) voted against it.
Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) made the failed proposal to boost the superintendent's budget request by $24 million and restore staffing and programs Dale had wanted to cut. Gibson sought to maintain current class size ratios and to avoid cuts to the number of instructional assistants.
"We are charged by the code of Virginia to adopt a budget that reflects the needs of the school system," Gibson said before the meeting. "Those needs don't change with the economy."
Raney supported the proposal and said the Board of Supervisors, General Assembly and Congress won't "know what our requirements are unless we tell them. . . . I think we need to send them a message."
But board member Wilson and five of her colleagues rejected the spending increase. Wilson said in an interview that she did not want to give parents "false expectations."
She said that when the county sets funding limits for the schools, the budget is likely to face another round of paring.
"I feel the economic situation is just very, very bad right now, and the Board of Supervisors honestly does not have the money to give to us," Wilson said. "I would rather be realistic with parents. Times are tough, and we are not going to give you everything you had in the past."