With one eye on a three-minute clock and the other on sweaty note cards, nearly 100 Fairfax County residents marched to the podium this week and publicly pleaded with the school board to approve the proposed school budget.
County parents, teachers and civic leaders rose one after another from seats in the Falls Church High School auditorium to praise the proposal for fiscal year 1981.
"Our best hedge against future inflation . . . is the investment in the education of our youth," said one parent. "In fact, many of us came to Fairfax County because of the high quality of education."
Other speakers seized the opportunity to criticize Gov. John N. Dalton's austere state budget proposal, which has come under fire for its financial support of the penal system and reduction in funds for education.
"Our governor wants to reduce the amount of money spent on education and increase money for jails," said Gary Redman, of the Mount Eagle Elementary School PTA. "A good way to fill (jails) up -- don't educate the children."
School officials call public interest in the proposed $327 million budget "unprecedented," and several expressed surprise when they were forced to schedule a second night of public hearings to accommodate the overflow.
George Hamel, public information officer for the school system, said only 23 speakers addressed the school board during last night's budget hearings -- about a quarter of the number this year.
School officials are calling the proposed fiscal plan a catch-up budget. School board Chairman Rodney F. Page said the budget, which is 15 percent higher than this year's, would allow the schools to regain ground lost to inflation during the past decade. Other school officials describe the budget as "progressive" but "realistic."
The school board is expected to consider the budget next Thursday.
Under the current proposal, all school employes would receive a 10.4 percent cost-of-living increase -- a pay raise that was reduced slightly last week when the Board of Supervisors approved a 1.85 percent increase for all county employes.
With employe salaries and benefits comprising 85 percent of all school expenditures -- and a growing public awareness of low teacher morale -- nearly every speaker addressed the issue of teachers' wages.
Parents expressed concern that without salary increases Fairfax County would see an exodus of qualified teachers, or would be saddled with educators dividing their time between teaching and second jobs.
Many teachers were present at the hearings -- wearing buttons and passing out leaflets that urged support for pay increases.
Since last spring, teachers have been engaged in a work-to-the-rule job action to protest the 5.15 percent salary increase they received last year. When the budget proposal was made public, teachers considered abandoning the job action. However, members of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA) voted by an overwhelming margin earlier this month to continue the protest until the cost-of-living increase is funded by the County board.
Looking around the auditorium, FEA President Gerry Gripper pointed out buttons and signs made by association members and reading "BIONIC." Gripper explained the meaning as "Believe It Or Not We Care" and told the audience to expect to see the slogan cropping up around the county.
Calling work-to-the-rule a teachers' "forum" to express dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions, Gripper said: "We are pleased the former acting superintendent (William J.) Burkholder heard us . . ." he said. "We support the budget. It does address the major issues."
Promising that FEA members would support the school board in lobbying supervisors to approve the budget intact, Gripper added that the FEA and the state Education Association would work on the state level to secure more funds for education.
However, Gripper said the budget did not meet all concerns of teachers. "The budget is not an ideal one," he said."Even with the increase, our teachers will still be far behind . . . inflation."
Rick Nelson -- president of the rival and more militant teacher's union, the American Federation of Teachers -- expressed dissatisfaction with the cost-of-living increase.
"Since 1973, teachers have lost 18.3 percent to inflation -- 9 percent this year," he said. "Over the years, there have been promises delayed and promises denied . . . it (the increase) is not enough."
Pointing to the discrepancies between teaching and administrative salaries, Nelson said: "The average teacher makes half the salary of a principal. Why must teachers leave the classroom to make a decent living?"
As a budget-cutting measure, Nelson, as well as several other speakers, asked the school board to reexamine the need for four area offices.
In closing, Nelson addressed the one issue of prime importance to the AFT -- collective bargaining: "There is no substitute for collective bargaining and we want it back," he said. "This county can well afford to pay its teachers fairly."
One elementary school PTA president urged the school board to approve the teacher salary increase, saying that with current salaries and the price of Fairfax County housing, "Teachers do not qualify for mortgage loans in the areas in which they live."
Warning that the result of inadequate pay for teachers would result in the deterioration of the school system she added: "We can spend the money now, or wait and pay the price."