Fairfax County schools chief proposes dramatic budget cuts

By Michael Alison Chandler and Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

The Fairfax County school system, the Washington area's largest, on Thursday became the latest to propose dramatic spending reductions, including scaling back programs that have made it a national model for academic excellence.

The 173,500-student system is facing historic revenue shortfalls. Superintendent Jack D. Dale has proposed a $2.3 billion budget that would increase class sizes, gut summer school, and eliminate freshman sports and foreign language instruction for elementary students.

Other school systems are in similar straits. Prince George's County school officials are evaluating a plan that would cut nearly 500 jobs, require employee furloughs and increase class sizes in most grades. In Montgomery County, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has warned of larger classes and hundreds of slashed positions. And D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee laid off 266 teachers and support staff members in October and has to cut an additional $22 million in the coming budget year.

But the potential cuts in Fairfax are unprecedented for the county school system, which prides itself on offering exceptional programs and cutting-edge practices. Without more money, Dale said, average class sizes -- which range from 21 to 25 students -- would probably grow by more than the one-student-per-class he has proposed.

Dale also warned that full-day kindergarten would be dramatically scaled back, and popular elementary band and strings music programs and foreign language-immersion programs probably would be eliminated.

"What this comes down to, quite frankly, is the quality of life in Fairfax County," Dale said during a news conference Thursday. "Quality of life should determine the tax rate, not the other way around."

In a September meeting with the School Board, county supervisors laid out guidelines for the county's fiscal 2011 budget, which included keeping average tax bills the same and maintaining school funding levels. Supervisors have to juggle a host of competing priorities this year as commercial and residential real estate revenue continues to decline and state funding drops.

In addition to proposing steep cuts, the 2011 spending plan, the first released by a school system in Northern Virginia, asks county supervisors for a $58 million increase in funding.

The Fairfax school system's increased spending is tied to enrollment growth and rising costs for retirement benefits, utilities and health insurance. School officials estimate that an additional $176 million is needed to fully fund existing programs, and some teachers and parents urged Dale to request the full amount.

"To come in at $58 million, I think, was the responsible thing to do, given the economic climate that we're in," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D), alluding to the anticipated $316 million budget shortfall the county is facing.

Dale's budget anticipates 1,760 additional students. It cuts nearly 600 positions, including about 80 central office staff jobs. He has proposed eliminating winter cheerleading and indoor track, in addition to all freshman sports. Transportation to academic centers for gifted students and career academies would be curtailed, and funding for extended school days and year-round school calendars would be dropped.

One school, Pimmit Hills Alternative School, would close, and its students would be transferred elsewhere.

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