Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the garden at Hollin Meadows Elementary School.

$2.2B Fairfax County school budget to cut jobs, add fees

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

The Fairfax County School Board was expected to approve a $2.2 billion budget Thursday night that would cut 200 positions, introduce fees for sports and Advanced Placement tests, and eliminate all but a few summer school offerings.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July is $35 million less than this year's budget, even as the region's largest school system plans for 1,700 more students. Earlier fiscal forecasts were more dire, with officials proposing the elimination of popular programs and services, including full-day kindergarten, band instruction in elementary school and foreign language immersion.

But a boost in state aid, as well as a holiday for the county's required pension contribution for state employees, allowed the School Board to save many threatened programs.

"The budget started out like a roller coaster," board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said. "We've had a lot of ups and downs with funding."

Some issues remained unsettled going into the board's vote.

Nearly 20 amendments were posted to the school system Web site Thursday afternoon. A few are intended to remove or reduce proposed fees for students of $100 per sport and $75 for International Baccalaureate or AP tests. Fees would not be charged to students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Most of the amendments, and the controversy, centered on whether to implement a new funding formula that would funnel additional money to schools that have the greatest academic challenges, based on their performances on state tests or on achievement gaps.

The formula, called the "Priority Schools Initiative," proposed by School Superintendent Jack D. Dale, would replace a patchwork of older programs that serve schools with more poor or non-English-speaking students. The existing programs extend the school day or school year or add staff for specialized instruction in the arts or technology. The new program would provide extra training to school leaders to help turn around their schools and offer other instructional supports.

Dale and other officials have maintained that existing programs are not the most effective or efficient way to promote academic success.

Some county schools that benefit from the programs have shown impressive results. Hollin Meadows Elementary School in the Alexandria section has a longer school day on Mondays (most elementary schools have only a half-day) and receives extra funding for science and math instruction.

With the additional funds, the school has developed a nationally known outdoor classroom with 14,000 square feet of gardens, which first lady Michelle Obama visited and which won a U.S. Department of Agriculture award.

Hollin Meadows Principal Jon Gates said he has saved enough money to retain the extra classes and programming for one more year. "Then it's gone," he said.

The school is one of about 30 that could be eligible for extra funding through the new initiative, but Gates said he does not know how much money he might receive or how it could be spent.

School Board members who support the new initiative say it represents a more flexible way to fund struggling schools, because different schools need help at different times. The school system already uses a separate formula to reduce class sizes in schools with more poor or non-English-speaking students.

Many parents have protested the proposed changes in recent weeks, as have some county supervisors, who have no jurisdiction over how school funding is spent.

Staff reporter Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.

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