Pay Raises Victims Of School Budgets

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

Many students will join bigger classes next fall. More than 1,000 teaching and support positions will vanish. Teacher pay will stagnate. Some schools will close.

These are some of the likely consequences for Washington area school systems squeezed by what promises to be the worst economic recession in a generation.

Last night, the Fairfax County School Board unanimously approved Superintendent Jack D. Dale's $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins in July. It reduces annual spending by $10 million, in part by freezing employee salaries and raising the average class size by half a student.

Also last night, the Alexandria School Board unanimously approved a $197 million spending plan, $2 million less than this year's budget, that calls for a six-month delay in seniority raises, omits cost-of-living increases and reduces custodial service.

Across the region, repercussions from the budget troubles vary. Some school systems are not expecting major classroom changes. Alexandria plans no increase in class size and is seeking to start an International Baccalaureate program in two elementary schools.

But on the whole, Maryland and Virginia school boards are on the defensive as they prepare to send spending plans to county and city governments. School officials are aware that local tax revenue might continue to slump, state aid is likely to fall off and any federal relief from an economic stimulus plan is not yet secured. In many places, enrollment also is expected to climb, making cost-cutting even more difficult.

The 169,000-student Fairfax school system, the region's largest, is expecting about 5,000 new students in the fall. School officials are seeking to refine that estimate before final budget decisions are made in the spring.

"There is the potential for a huge wave in front of us that could swamp the school system. What we will be asking from the Board of Supervisors is help to ensure that the ship we are on does not get swamped," said Fairfax School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence).

The Loudoun School Board last week approved a $747 million budget, with spending essentially flat, even though officials expect 2,400 new students next fall, a 4 percent increase. In Prince William County, Superintendent Steven L. Walts proposed a $745 million budget Wednesday, 7 percent smaller than this school year's $800 million spending plan, even though officials are predicting 1,400 new students (up 2 percent). And the Montgomery County school system's $2.13 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, expected to be approved by the School Board on Monday, reflects the smallest year-to-year increase in a decade. Montgomery officials are expecting about 1,500 new students, a 1 percent increase.

Spending cuts usually hit staffing hardest because salaries take up most of the budgets.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a former Fairfax superintendent, said a national survey of superintendents indicates that more than 250,000 school positions are likely be cut across the country in the next school year.

"We are going to see things happen at the school level that we have not seen, with that kind of reduction in staff," he said. "We are just beginning to see how deep these cuts might go."

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