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Teacher Raises, Class Sizes Take Hit in Budget Proposal

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale yesterday revealed new details about the economic downturn's potential hit on the region's largest school system, offering a budget scenario that includes no cost-of-living raise for teachers, an increase in class size and elimination of such services as busing to centers for gifted and talented students.

The proposal estimates a 5 percent reduction from the $2.2 billion spending level for the fiscal year that ends in June. It assumes no increase in the county's share of the school budget and a decrease in state funding. The last time Fairfax schools faced such a squeeze was in the early 1990s, when the school system eliminated hundreds of positions and laid off teachers and office staff.

What's more, school officials said, a 5 percent cut may not be enough because revenue forecasts are worsening. "I believe we are going to have to go further," Dale said.

The magnitude of the potential reductions portends a major shift for the 169,000-student system, which has poured resources into academic services in recent years, cultivating a top-notch reputation and keeping pace with a growing population of students with disabilities or limited English skills.

Other local school systems face similar challenges as they confront declining tax revenue. Montgomery County school officials are warning teachers that they cannot afford scheduled pay raises, and Prince George's County school officials have asked each division to identify potential cuts representing about 10 percent to prepare for next year's budget. The Loudoun County School Board is considering this week whether to ask Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III to draft budget scenarios including cuts of up to 15 percent. One Loudoun board member has proposed immediate cuts to help save money.

For Fairfax, the fiscal picture began to cloud last winter when officials scrambled to close a $100 million budget gap. The school system ended up raising the average class size by half a student and cutting summer school programs. Now, the projected shortfall is twice as large.

Typically, Dale presents his first budget proposal in January. But given increasingly bleak revenue forecasts, county and school officials have begun to develop budgets much earlier and have launched community meetings to gather ideas.

What Dale unveiled yesterday to a School Board committee includes 10 percent spending cuts for most central office departments and a 5 percent spending cut for instruction. Dale has asked principals to evaluate effects, but he estimated that average class size would grow by one or two students.

The scenario would postpone funding for textbooks and the expansion of foreign language programs and full-day kindergarten for new elementary schools. It would also cut funding for planetariums, reduce spending on character education, trim bus service and consolidate four programs that prepare disadvantaged students for college. And it would give teachers no cost-of-living raise, potentially saving tens of millions of dollars, officials said.

The proposed cuts were presented alongside a second scenario based more on the school system's needs, Dale said. That scenario would reduce spending by about 2 percent.

Dale will present the scenarios to the full board Friday and the county Board of Supervisors next month. He expects to make changes before offering a final proposal in January.

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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