Teachers Criticize Fairfax Budget

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In affluent Fairfax County, it's never enough. That was the lesson yesterday for the county Board of Supervisors, which approved its annual budget amid criticism -- not for raising taxes but for inadequately funding the public schools.

Supervisors gave final approval yesterday to a $3.1 billion spending plan that raises the property tax by three pennies, to 92 cents per $100 of assessed value. Most of the new money, about $45 million, will go to the public schools. But it was less than the School Board had asked for -- and that drew a rebuke from teachers, who sent out a sharply worded postcard over the weekend in anticipation of the supervisors' vote.

The card, mailed to the Fairfax Education Association's 6,500 members, said supervisors have placed "your promised 3 percent raise in jeopardy." The card was referring to the likelihood that the School Board will trim teachers' cost-of-living increases to 2 percent to balance the school budget in the wake of the county's action.

Supervisors protested the criticism as they prepared to vote on the county budget yesterday. They noted not only that every two of the three pennies in new tax revenue will go to the school system, but also that it is the School Board's job, and not theirs, to decide how to spend the money.

"To suggest that this board has placed in jeopardy the compensation of teachers is disingenuous and unfair," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the county board. "It's disheartening, because we're doing everything we can in a deteriorating revenue situation."

Leonard Bumbaca, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said the card was not intended to criticize supervisors but to point out where the budget fell short.

"They have done a lot," Bumbaca said. "But it doesn't change the situation that they didn't go all the way."

Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, said school supporters have always wanted more than the county has given them. She said it's a function of living in an affluent county with a vocal community of parents and teachers, many of whom would rather pay higher taxes than jeopardize school class size, teacher pay and other education programs.

Bulova recalled a year when supervisors gave the schools all the money they asked for, and still the School Board asked for more. "No matter what we give them, it's never enough," she said with a smile.

School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said the teachers' group is right to assume that cost-of-living increases could be reduced to 2 percent to balance the school budget. Eligible teachers will still receive step increases, which average 2.7 percent, he said.

"Employee compensation makes up 87 percent of our budget," he said. "So to realize a significant reduction in cost, we have to reduce people." Other likely consequences, he added, include increasing class size, delaying the county's expansion of full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools and postponing expansion of elementary foreign-language instruction.

Niedzielski-Eichner noted that the School Board reduced its budget proposal by $33 million before making its spending request to the county board. He also noted that projected enrollment increases and rising fuel costs eat up much of the new money that supervisors are providing. It's also critical, he said, that Fairfax keep its teacher salaries competitive with those in neighboring school districts to be able to attract the best applicants.

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