Fairfax School Board Budget Calling for Larger Classes

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Fairfax County students can expect larger classes, new bell schedules and higher parking fees next year, all part of a $2.2 billion budget the School Board unanimously approved last night. The plan also freezes salaries for teachers and staff.

The spending plan for the region's largest school system accounts for 5,000 more students but is $18 million and 800 positions lighter than this year's budget.

The Fairfax Board of Supervisors froze funding for the 169,000-student system, but an infusion of $50 million in federal stimulus money helped stave off deeper cuts. More than half of that will be spent on special education or high-poverty schools.

Still, school officials said the spending plan increases burdens on teachers and reduces the quality of education that families expect from a world-class system.

"We are at a tipping point," said School Board budget chairman Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence). "If we are not careful we will pass it and realize we have done some permanent damage."

Federal funds and other savings helped preserve some programs and services that were at risk.

The board affirmed last night that busing to magnet schools, gifted programs and academies as well as to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will continue. Girls' gymnastics and indoor track teams are safe. Class-size ratios for some special education classes will remain untouched.

The budget includes some new programs, supported by federal funds, including career mentors for special education teachers and a team organized to handle student behavior issues.

But overall, the school system is facing the steepest financial setback since the early 1990s. For the second year in a row, class size will increase by half a student, a move that increases the likelihood of split grade-level courses in elementary school and cancelled classes in high schools.

The increase in student parking fees, from $150 to $200 next school year, is intended to net $300,000 for a staffing reserve to help schools avoid such tough decisions.

Caseloads will increase for social workers and school psychologists next year, and clerical, custodian and assistant principal positions will be cut. The central administration budget was trimmed 10 percent. Some programs will be redesigned with less staff support.

One of the widest-reaching changes will be an overhaul of bus schedules and starting times at more than 100 elementary and middle schools. School transportation officials expect to save more than $4 million by cutting 100 driver positions and shifting bell schedules to create more efficient bus routes.

Elementary bell schedules will change by as much as 30 minutes, and middle school start times will move back by as much as 50 minutes. No high school start times would change.

A controversial proposal to push back high school start times was rejected by the School Board this spring after a series of community meetings. Supporters of later high school start times said they were dismayed the board passed the new plan without more public outreach.

Many teachers also were also disappointed by the budget. The Fairfax Education Association, which represents 7,000 teachers and support professionals, had pushed for a partial step increase, so teachers would not fall a full year behind in the salary schedule.

The salary freeze does "not just affect one year, but every single year afterwards," said Leonard Bumbaca, the association president. "It's going to be a long, tough road to restore it.

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