Va. School Officials Fear Future Cuts

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

As the toughest school spending cuts in several years become reality July 1, Virginia education officials credit the federal stimulus law for helping them avoid more onerous reductions. But they are looking nervously to the next budget cycle.

School administrators warned in the fall that schools could be closed and swaths of teachers laid off. Class sizes, they said, could balloon. By and large, that did not happen. The worst-case scenarios were generally averted as the federal government began pumping billions of dollars to states nationwide.

Now, many school officials say, they are concerned about the consequences of flat or reduced budgets as they struggle to accommodate enrollment growth. Fairfax County schools are expecting 5,200 new students next fall; Loudoun County schools, 2,500; and Prince William County schools, 1,400.

The Fairfax School Board approved a $2.2 billion budget last week for fiscal 2010, a decrease of almost 1 percent from this year's level. About 800 staff positions have been eliminated, class sizes have bumped up and employee salaries have been frozen.

Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said in an e-mail that he was "not pleased" with this year's budget.

"It affects students, who are not going to delay their schooling or repeat a school year when the economy improves," he said.

Prince William school officials approved a $786 million spending plan this month, representing a 1.6 percent cut from current levels.

"This year's budget remains the most difficult budget we have faced in recent years," said county schools spokesman Keith Imon.

In Prince William, no staff members were laid off, and employees received a 2.9 percent salary increase. But average middle and high school class sizes will increase by about half a student.

Imon said the class size increases were "of the highest concern."

Loudoun schools are cutting spending by 1.7 percent, to $733 million. Although employee salaries have been frozen, school officials avoided layoffs and class size increases, in part by instituting student fees for parking and sports.

Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said he was glad that the schools had avoided adding to the "unemployment problems in our region."

In Arlington County, the school operating budget remained essentially flat, increasing 0.3 percent to $357 million. It was the last budget for departing Superintendent Robert G. Smith, who said that he was unhappy about reducing employee pay raises.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's a basic part of our compensation system," he said.

Employees who were eligible for step increases will receive half their expected raise.

Smith expressed relief that he had averted all but one layoff.

"Without the stimulus money, we would have been [laying off] a number" of employees, he said.

Alexandria schools also approved a budget last week, which, at $198 million, was just under a 1 percent decrease from this year's levels. School officials expressed relief that they had avoided large-scale layoffs but said that they were concerned that rising health-care costs could hurt their lowest-paid employees.

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