Smallest Budget Increase in 15 Years Approved

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

The Fairfax County School Board approved an annual budget last night with the smallest spending increase in 15 years: a $2.2 billion blueprint that increases average class size by half a student and gives teachers a lower cost-of-living raise than they sought.

Officials called it an austere budget and said it leaves the school system more than $20 million short of what the School Board originally requested for the coming fiscal year. The budget represents a 1.6 percent increase in total spending and a 2.5 percent increase in the county government's contribution.

"It starts cutting into the bone of our delivery of services," board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said in an interview. The budget also calls for an overhaul of summer school programs to serve thousands fewer students.

Still, fiscal pressures did not stop board members from expanding some key programs. They supported an extension of all-day kindergarten and foreign language instruction to a handful of additional elementary schools, continuing the rollout of those programs, although at a slower pace. Niedzielski-Eichner called the proposals, which will cost a combined $1.7 million, a "signal that we are still committed to these priorities."

The school system's spending plan passed 11 to 1, with board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) opposed.

The county government's increase of $40 million in school spending, set by the Board of Supervisors, was $23.7 million less than the School Board's request. The percentage increase, 2.5 percent, is less than half of what Fairfax schools have received in recent years.

Overall, officials describe the fiscal situation as tighter than at any time since the early 1990s. At the same time, enrollment has risen faster than anticipated and is expected to reach 168,400 in the fall, up from 165,700 a year earlier.

Rising enrollment and higher diesel fuel costs are expected to absorb most of the spending increase. The school system's 1,600-bus fleet burns through more than $40,000 a day in fuel.

To save money, the budget trims instructional assistant positions, postpones spending on textbooks and restricts funding for central office staff. The school system is also overhauling some programs to reduce spending. Summer school, for example, is expected to be a week shorter for elementary and middle schools and available to about 17,000 students, down from 27,000. Most savings will come from offering teachers a smaller cost-of-living increase -- 2 percent rather than the 3 percent they sought. Some board members worried the shift would harm the county's competitiveness. Montgomery County schools are planning a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers.

The School Board also approved some last-minute additions, including funding for a staffing reserve to deal partly with problems caused by the increase in the student-teacher ratio and a one-time $500 stipend to offset the rising cost of gas and food for the county's lowest paid contract employees. The budget's expansion of foreign language instruction in elementary schools and full-day kindergarten came after budget officials and some board members had recommended freezing the programs. In the next school year, full-day kindergarten will be extended to five schools and foreign language instruction to four.

Board Vice Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said the kindergarten funding was an "equity issue," given that most county kindergartners have full-day classes while some remain on half-day schedules.

About 70 percent of county elementary schools have full-day kindergarten. Not nearly as many have the foreign language program, which is intended to further the goal of teaching every student to communicate in more than one language.

The board also directed Superintendent Jack D. Dale to undertake a comprehensive review of major programs and school services to find places to cut costs next year, on the assumption that the economic outlook is not likely to turn around.

In a separate proposal, the board unanimously approved an early end to the academic year, moving the last day of classes from June 17 to June 13.

The board also unanimously voted to relocate Graham Road Elementary School in the Falls Church area to a more spacious site nearly a mile away. The campus at Graham Road and Route 50 is the county's smallest, covering little more than four acres. School officials tried for two years to expand it but were unable to buy adjacent land.

The proposal had divided the neighborhood, with many concerned that the move will limit access for immigrants who lack reliable transportation. But board members said the benefits of the larger campus outweighed those challenges.

"The children of Graham Road deserve the same quality facility that every other child in Fairfax County gets," said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large).

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