Fairfax supervisors annoyed but agree to increase funds for needy students

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to commit an extra $1.3 million to public schools for their neediest students -- but not without grumbling over whether the School Board and the superintendent had manipulated the budget and public emotion to secure the funds.

The board voted 7 to 2 to endorse additional money for the Priority Schools Initiative so the district can pay for additional teachers and additional instructional time, such as summer classes, at 11 elementary schools serving impoverished children.

But before the board agreed to the extra funding, two Republican supervisors and a Democrat lashed out at the Fairfax County School Board and Superintendent Jack D. Dale for how the budget funding request was handled.

Noting that they had given schools $1.6 billion, or more than half of all county spending, supervisors accused the district of using needy children as hostages to pry more money out of taxpayers.

"They do it every year at budget time," Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said in an interview, likening the district's maneuver to "blackmail." Herrity said he voted against the request for the additional funding because he thought that the district could have found the money if it tried to trim its bureaucracy to save money, as County Executive Anthony Griffin has done.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) also expressed annoyance, saying that if the funding had been so key to the district's mission, it should have been included at the start of the budget process, not weeks before school begins.

"I'm infuriated that this was not taken care of in the schools' budget," McKay said. "And there was no excuse to wedge us against these kids."

But Dale denied that the schools had been manipulative. He said the funding maneuver was just part of the back-and-forth between the Board of Supervisors, which levies the taxes and decides the lump sum to go to schools, and the School Board and superintendent's office, which set school policies and decide how the money will be spent.

Early this year, faced with a grim budget, Dale said he submitted a proposed budget that did not include funding for Priority Schools transition. The School Board considered adding the money into its formal budget but decided not to.

When the Board of Supervisors left open the door to a future request for Priority Schools on its own, by passing an amendment saying it would consider funding at a later date, the school district decided to take the supervisors at their word, Dale said.

The Priority Initiative schools are among 20 with extra needs targeted for help by Project EXCEL nearly 12 years ago. All have large numbers of minority and immigrant children, whose benchmarks of achievement have lagged behind whites and Asians. The county's EXCEL program, which initiated all-day kindergarten, longer school days, summer school and smaller classes, aimed to close that achievement gap. But the adoption of state-mandated Standards of Learning requirements and the countywide implementation of other initiatives, including all-day kindergarten, prompted the district to modify EXCEL.

The $1.3 million is to be distributed among the following elementary schools: Bucknell, Cameron, Groveton, Hollin Meadows, Hutchison, Mount Eagle, Pine Spring, Riverside, Westlawn, Woodlawn and Woodley Hills.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said that although tough economic times had made budgeting tricky at every level of government, she criticized school officials for not doing more to educate the public about their plans or Priority Schools or learn the public's opinion. Once word spread about the cuts, community members pressured supervisors.

"We heard from the community," she said.

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