Fairfax school officials submit preview of cuts

By Michael Alison Chandler
Monday, October 19, 2009

The Fairfax County School Board is bracing for the most dramatic reduction in services in more than 20 years as it attempts to bridge a projected $176 million budget shortfall with cuts that could extend to closing schools, increasing class size, ending summer school, discontinuing most full-day kindergarten classes and eliminating foreign language instruction in elementary schools.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale will not present a formal budget proposal until January, but school officials are releasing a list of potential cuts because they want to give the public the earliest possible look at the severity of this year's deficit. "What we are trying to get people to understand is, you are all at risk this time," said board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), the budget chairwoman.

Board members say that classrooms are already strained from adjustments made over the past two years, including consecutive increases in class sizes.

The current budget is $18 million less than last year's, and the school system has grown by about 5,000 students. Federal stimulus money helped offset even deeper cuts, but the school board still eliminated nearly 800 positions and reduced many program budgets.

This year, programs will probably be discontinued, said school board chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully). "There is no trimming around the edges anymore," she said.

Smith said the reductions will shock many Fairfax parents who are accustomed to a high level of service and expect top performance from the school system. "We are not a bare-bones school system," she said.

County and school staff are hosting community meetings this fall to solicit input on the budget. Forums are scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 29 and Nov. 14.

Other area school systems are also anticipating serious cuts as property values and state revenue continue to decline.

Arlington County school officials predict that they will need to slash department budgets by as much as 15 percent to meet a nearly $50 million shortfall.

Enrollment growth is compounding pressures for some Northern Virginia school systems. Prince William County schools are serving 2,000 more students than officials had projected, costing an extra $19 million. Loudoun County schools are 600 students over projections.

In Fairfax, the projected $176 million shortfall assumes 2,000 new students, no increase in county funding and no pay increase for teachers or other staff. If approved, it would mean a second year of salary freezes.

School system staff will present what they are calling a "straw man" document to the school board at a meeting Monday, floating a long list of potential cuts for board members to consider as they discuss funding priorities.

The list includes increasing class size by one student for a savings of $19 million, removing foreign language instruction from elementary schools to save $2 million, and rolling back full-day kindergarten from 101 schools to 34 schools in disadvantaged communities, yielding $13 million in savings.

The board will also consider eliminating summer school to save $8 million and undoing a special staffing formula that provides extra teachers for high-need schools, which would save $20 million. Also on the table are reductions in school technology specialists, guidance counselors and social workers and higher activity fees and test fees for Advanced Placement courses.

According to Dale, the early list of potential cuts was generated from conversations with community groups, principals and other employees. Some of the proposals were rejected last year.

For now, school officials are trying to get a better handle on the scope of the deficit. Even if all the cuts on the preliminary list were to be adopted, for example, they would not bridge a $176 million gap.

"That is how big you have to look," said Kristen Michaels, director of budget services for the system. "It's just an overwhelming figure."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company