Fairfax School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech was ready to submit his 2004 budget proposal yesterday with $19 million in cuts that would have affected summer school and classes for the learning-disabled and those who speak limited English.
But Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has proposed a state budget without threatened cuts in education funding, and Domenech said that if it survives the General Assembly, he, too, will be able to spare the ax. His $1.6 billion budget proposal, presented last night to the Fairfax County School Board, includes $114.5 million in new spending.
The cuts he feared he would have to make were listed in the heavy, bound budget documents that were printed in December. "Not having to make those cuts has been a tremendous relief to us," Domenech said. "But the proviso here is that the General Assembly follows suit."
If Domenech made no cuts, he also did not expand any programs -- a decision he said would hurt some of the county's low-income students and limited-English speakers. He recommended using most of the spending increase on raises in an effort to attract top teachers.
Domenech said higher salaries are the system's "primary strategy to hold the ship together."
But he warned that without expanding programs such as Project Excel and Success by Eight, which gives extra money to schools with large numbers of struggling students, Fairfax's traditionally excellent school system will soon slip.
"This is not the Fairfax of five years ago, and we cannot continue to educate our students on the cheap," he said.
The budget includes a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all employees and annual step increases for those eligible. Spending increases also would pay for an anticipated 2,883 new students next year, he said. In addition, Domenech recommended paying teachers for two additional work days a year, to provide more time for training during the summer.
In other business last night, Isis Castro (Mount Vernon) was elected School Board chairman. She said Domenech's budget would hold the school system steady -- the best that could be hoped for given the economic downturn.
"At least, if we can maintain what we have, that is important in times like these," she said.
The budget, which must be approved by the School Board and submitted to the Board of Supervisors, would require 7.9 percent more funding from the county. County officials have said they expect $62 million in new funds to be available for the school system -- a 5.3 percent increase that would allow them to reduce the property tax rate.
The difference raises the specter of last year's budget fight, described by some as the nastiest in years, when School Board members and supervisors spent weeks sniping at each other about how much the county should and could afford to spend on education.
Domenech said yesterday that he would have to make some of his original cuts if the supervisors stick to the 5.3 percent guideline.
Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's budget committee, said that education is the supervisors' top priority and that the 5.3 percent guideline is "not cast in stone." But she said the supervisors are likely to support a tax rate cut to soften the blow to homeowners hit hard by rising property assessments.
"I know the schools have been impacted especially hard by state reductions," she said. "But we can't eat everything on the general county side if we're going to reduce the real estate tax rate and not have the schools shoulder some of those reductions."
School Board member Rita S. Thompson (At Large) said a 7.9 percent increase in county funding does not seem unreasonable, but she said there may be room for cuts to Domenech's budget.
"Some of the things that we like doing and some of things that have attracted attention nationally may have to be pared back to make sure we fulfill our mission" to provide a basic education to all children, Thompson said.
Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech will answer questions online about his budget at 12:30 p.m. today. For more information, visit www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.