Fairfax County School Board to Reduce Funding Request From Supervisors

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Fairfax County School Board is preparing to reduce its funding request from the Board of Supervisors, thanks largely to an infusion of federal dollars.

During a budget review this week, school officials reported that about $24 million in federal stimulus funding will replace state aid they were expecting to lose. And slowing enrollment growth will eliminate about $4 million in projected costs, they said. In addition, the school system has saved $8 million this fiscal year by freezing hiring and through other cost-cutting measures, and it can roll that sum into next year.

The news takes some of the sting out of a sobering budget cycle. The federal aid and cost-cutting will take the school system more than halfway toward its request for a $57 million increase in the county's share of school funding for next school year.

"This is both a relief for us but also for the county taxpayer," said School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence). "That being said, we will still need help from the Board of Supervisors."

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin last month proposed a freeze on county funding for the 169,000-student school system. The county pays about three-quarters of the system's $2.2 billion budget. County supervisors also killed school system plans to centralize the administration's headquarters, an effort the School Board said would save money over time.

Griffin also proposed several cuts in county funding that would affect the schools, including $2.4 million in program cuts for school resource officers and $750,000 for clinic room aides, both services the School Board deemed "essential" to the safety and health of students. The county's plan also lowered the cap on borrowing money for school construction, which could slow several renovations in the pipeline.

School Superintendent Jack D. Dale will present the modified budget proposal to supervisors this month and said he plans to ask that money for those programs be restored.

The School Board's current request for a $57 million increase includes a class-size increase of half a student and a freeze on all employee salaries. More dire scenarios floated by school officials included larger class-size increases, the elimination of summer school or reductions to popular after-school activities.

The federal funding might help mitigate some worst-case options, though.

Other school systems are also looking to the federal stimulus monies to take some pain out of potential budget cuts, which have included closing schools in Prince George's and Loudoun counties and eliminating teaching and support positions around the region. Prince George's school officials have abandoned plans to furlough school employees and increase class sizes in the early grades, thanks to an expected increase in federal funding.

School Board members in Fairfax say they are going to have to stretch less money among more students, and they will have fewer tools to help. They had hoped to purchase a new office building in the Falls Church area to bring together 1,100 employees from a dozen facilities. Centralizing their administration, they said, would have allowed them to abandon costly leases and eliminate more positions, shifts that could have freed up to about $7 million over three years before the first debt payment would have been due.

The School Board also faces some pressing, and potentially costly, problems. Two of the buildings housing administrators are former schools that the board hoped to refurbish and restore to classroom use in areas where schools are crowded or inadequate. Relocating the administrators or finding new land for schools could be pricey.

"We're obviously very disappointed" by the supervisors' decision, said School Board Chairman Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon). "The whole purpose of moving forward was to save overhead and administrative costs and enable our students to get into better schools and have better facilities."

Storck said the School Board was committed to pursuing the consolidation, but he said he's not sure when, given the volatile economic conditions. "It's the right thing to do," he said.

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