Skyrocketing energy costs and plummeting teacher morale were two determining factors in the proposed Fairfax County school budget for fiscal year 1981, according to school officials who presented the budget to the public last week.
Employe salaries and benefits are expected to take 85 percent of the proposed operating budget of $327 million. Energy costs are estimated at $18 million, more than 5 percent of the total expenditures.
School officials still were struggling with a $2.4 million deficit in the current budget -- the result of soaring energy costs -- when they found themselves making educated guesses about next year's energy outlook.
Myron Cale, assistant superintendent for financial services, appeared exasperated last week with his role as energy soothsayer.
"We just don't know what is going to happen -- we don't know what the Ayatollah (Ruhollah Khomeini) is going to do next," he said at a budget briefing. "This (current) year has shown that the cost of energy is very hard to predict."
The problem of budgeting for unpredictable energy expenses was underscored in the budget document by this caveat: "These costs are subject to the severity of weather, continued increases of weather, continued increases in oil prices by the OPEC nations and oil companies, presidential and congressional decisions and the impact of the Iranian crisis . . . it is the staff's view that the energy crisis has the potential for gross disruption of the instructional program in the fiscal year 1981 and beyond."
At a press conference to present the budget last week, Acting Superintendent William J. Burkholder somberly warned: "This budget has $16.4 million to cover energy costs. Thay may very well not be enough."
The $16.4 million energy allocation is the total budget for utilities, but does not include the cost of gasoline used by school buses, which the school administration estimates travel about 9 billion miles a year.
Gasoline costs have been budgeted at $2 million for next year, an increase of more than $300,000 over the current year's projected costs.
In a carefully worded statement, Burkholder briefly alluded to the possibility of using "less traditional methods" to conserve energy in the future, as a "last resort." Upon further questioning, Burkholder listed several possibilities: curtailing after-school activities, increasing the distance children walk to school, shortening the school week to four days and canceling classes during the coldest times of the year.
While Burkholder was hesitant to emphasize the need for drastic energy conservation, the school board appeared to be more receptive to the idea at a budget briefing with school officials.
Board members asked the staff to come back with an analysis of how much energy and money could be saved with each of the proposed changes.
The issue of cutting back school bus service to save both gallons and dollars is not a new one in Fairfax County. Last summer the school board voted to lengthen the walking distance for the county's intermediate and high school students to a maximum of 2 1/2 miles. The election-conscious board of supervisors, however, responded to angry parents by providing the school system with additional funds to prevent a school bus cutback.
Included in the $327 million package is the cost of opening four new elementary schools in the western part of the county. Administrators say the new buildings will be energy efficient: all will be adaptable to solar energy and one will be underground.
Fairfax County already has one experimental school which, in addition to being constructed underground, is solar-powered. The Terraset Elementary School, in Reston, was constructed with county money but the solar-energy system was installed with funds from a Saudi Arabian foundation.
A comparison was made in a recent school bulletin of the electricity used at Terraset and a comparably sized conventional school, Hunter Woods. During the same 10-month period last year, electricity at Hunter Woods cost $53,118 while those costs were held to $21,493 at Terraset.
Al Hlavin, director of design and construction for Fairfax schools, joked at last week's budget briefing that "all of my Mideast sources have dried up because of the crisis there," but he promised to search for funding sources for solar-energy systems for the four new schools.
At the press conference where he presented the new budget, acting superintendent Burkholder said that in addition to energy costs, low teacher morale was of prime concern to school officials.
Burkholder indicated that a 10.4 percent proposed salary increase for school employes would go a long way toward making the county's 7,200 teachers a happier group of people.
"I don't think it's any secret that employe morale -- particularly teacher morale -- has been at a low level during the past couple of hears," Burkholder said.
Members of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), who have been "working-to-rule" since last spring, will vote next week on whether to suspend their job action as a result of the salary proposal -- a plan already endorsed by FEA leaders.
Burkholder also proposed a 14 percent raise in the base salary paid to beginning teachers. Presently, only Montgomery County pays its new teachers less than Fairfax County's $11,041 annual salary. The increase, to $12,657, would move Fairfax to second place in the area. Fairfax would then rank below the District, which pays first-year teachers $13,347.
Burkholder said the salary increase is necessary because of a developing teacher shortage and the difficulty of recruiting qualified educators without competitive salaries.
"We're already seeing a shortage of teachers in areas like industrial arts," Burkholder said. "The trend is expected to move in to other areas in the future."