The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, exasperated by stormy budget battles, is attempting to take greater control of the way its appointed School Board spends its money.
The supervisors have ordered the School Board to submit next year's school budget in 13 separate categories so the supervisors can single out specific areas for cuts. The School Board this year, as in past years, gave the supervisors a request for a lump sum.
Although several supervisors said they considered the School Board's request to increase spending by more than 10 percent "totally out of line," they were hesitant to snip more than $4.3 million from the $429 million budget.
They said they didn't trust the School Board to make reductions in the proper places. Insofar as most supervisors were concerned, the "proper places" would be in school administration.
"The school system is heavy on administration," said Supervisor Audrey Moore, who added that she has been pushing for more control over the school budget for several years.
Supervisors cite figures showing that the school system's staff has grown 6.8 percent in the past six years, while enrollment has declined 10.9 percent.
Some school officials defend the staff increase by saying that a wide range of special services for handicapped and non-English-speaking students is forcing the school staff to expand even though enrollments are declining.
Other school officials agree that the school administration may be overstaffed, but argue that any decision to cut the staff should be left to the School Board.
"State law gives supervisors control over the bottom line" of the school budget, said Carmin Caputo, chairman of the School Board's budget committee. "But it gives us the wherewithal to do what we want with that money, and keep the supervisors out of it."
Although the law prohibits the supervisors from examining the school budget line by line, it does allow them to require the School Board to present the budget in categories.
Some supervisors called this requirement a political ploy to convince the School Board to cut its staff--that all other areas of the budget will be "safe" if the board makes concessions on the staff.
Supervisors' Chairman John Herrity said the supervisors probably would be willing to drop their demand for a categorized budget proposal if school officials reduced their administrative staff in next year's budget.
But if the supervisors insist on the new procedure, Caputo predicted, they may get more than they intended.
"More control means more work," said Caputo. Other school officials say the new system would require the School Board to come before the supervisors every time it wanted to make minor changes in spending categories that now are considered routine admininstrative matters.
But the supervisors' actions against the School Board this year went beyond disagreements over staffing. They culminated weeks of friction over budget matters between the two boards.
The supervisors repeatedly warned the School Board that its budget requests were too high at a time when a weak economy is pinching county revenues.
Caputo said the supervisors were responding to pressure from angry taxpayers.
"When people started pounding on the door about high taxes, they had to react with some cuts," he said.
The supervisors also were irritated when, halfway through the budget process, they discovered that school employes were receiving larger benefit increases than county workers.
School Board members denied they had hidden that information from the supervisors, and called the perceived discrepancies an "oversight" on the part of the supervisors.
But officials on both sides of the political fence say the combination of the misunderstandings and a request for a substantial budget increase in the face of angry taxpayers gave the supervisors strong political incentive to tighten their control over school spending.