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Fairfax County schools chief proposes dramatic budget cuts

By Michael Alison Chandler and Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; A01

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.

Teachers would have larger classes, go without raises for the second year in a row, and have fewer opportunities for professional development. Dale also plans to cut a program that provides extended annual contracts so teachers have more time to develop leadership skills.

To help offset losses, Dale has proposed charging new fees, including $75 for every Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test and $100 for every high school sport. A sliding scale would help students from lower-income families participate.

This is the third year that the school system has had to increase class sizes and squeeze other savings from its budget. Fairfax added about 4,000 students this year as county funding remained flat and state funding declined. Federal stimulus dollars eased the sting and will continue to help fund special education and high-poverty schools.

The Fairfax School Board could amend Dale's proposal before sending a funding request to the county Feb. 4.

School Board member Jane K. Straus (Dranesville) said the proposed cuts would be "devastating" and she urged Fairfax parents to argue for more funding. "I do expect my phone to be ringing," she said. "We need to work together to maintain the quality of our schools."

Several parent groups have formed online to urge county officials to save programs such as full-day kindergarten, elementary band and strings, and foreign language instruction for elementary students.

"Most people I know bought their houses in Fairfax County because of the schools. Even my neighbors without any children have very high-valued homes because of the school system," said Kristen Fennell, co-founder of Concerned Parents of Elementary Students.

Schools account for more than half of the county budget. Lacking additional state money, supervisors would have to raise taxes or make deeper cuts to other county services or both to increase school funding, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said.

"Anyone who tells you that we're not going into this budget season thinking we're giving schools the same amount and equalizing the tax rate is flat-out lying," said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee).

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