Fairfax, Other Area Systems Haul Out the Budget Ax

By Michael Alison Chandler and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fairfax County is considering reductions in campus police officers, school health aides and preschool classes for needy students, while the Prince George's County school system has begun a hiring freeze and is drafting plans for a possible 10 percent budget cut as educators confront the fallout of the economic downturn.

The fiscal troubles in the two counties are echoed elsewhere in a region that prizes public education and for the past decade has lavished money on academic initiatives. In Montgomery County, the superintendent has warned that the schools cannot honor scheduled teacher raises. Loudoun County is hoping voters will endorse a meals tax Nov. 4 to help fund school construction.

Typically, school budget discussions do not begin in earnest until December or January, when superintendents make annual spending proposals. But falling tax revenue and rising fuel costs have led Fairfax County officials to jump-start their budget review, giving a much earlier glimpse of the services at stake.

Fairfax supervisors, facing a $430 million shortfall for the next fiscal year, asked each department in the county government to identify 15 percent reductions to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Officials listed a host of potential cuts, including shuttering a district police station or several fire stations.

Also listed were personnel and programs related to the 169,000-student school system but outside of the $2.2 billion Fairfax schools budget. Among them were campus police known as school resource officers, health clinic aides and county-funded classes in the Head Start preschool program. Those cuts would save nearly $5 million on spending for resource officers, $4.5 million for health aides and about $600,000 for the preschool classes.

"These are services that we cannot do without," School Board member Kaye Kory (Mason) said of campus police and health aides.

Fairfax County devotes more than half its $3.3 billion budget to spending on its highly regarded schools. School Board members and county supervisors have vowed to work together to share the burden of closing the budget gap. For the school system, that could mean shouldering expenses it has been spared before.

The school system, which is the region's largest, is also scrutinizing its spending. This month, Superintendent Jack D. Dale presented to the School Board possible administrative spending cuts of $2.9 million, including reducing the number of board members (now 12) or positions in adult and community education. School and county officials have begun community budget meetings that are expected to continue through next month.

In Prince George's, which has about 130,000 students, officials have cut $14 million in administrative spending from the current budget to help cope with a county shortfall. Schools spokesman John White said yesterday that the system had begun a hiring freeze and that it is reviewing all discretionary spending on a case-by-case basis.

Plans to expand foreign language immersion programs and create schools that span pre-kindergarten through eighth grade -- an effort to address academic troubles in middle schools -- have been shelved for lack of money.

White said each school system division has been asked to identify 10 percent reductions as county educators prepare next year's spending plan, which will be proposed in December.

Superintendent John E. Deasy, who is leaving in February, has warned of tight times ahead. He opposed a Board of Education vote to lease a new $36 million headquarters that a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) called poorly timed.

A $130 million proposal to consolidate Fairfax school headquarters in the Falls Church area was turned down in September by supervisors, who also cited bad timing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company