The Fairfax County School Board unanimously approved a $1.8 billion budget last night that will give school staff members an average 7.1 percent raise, add 29 full-day kindergarten classes and reduce class size in elementary and middle schools.
After weeks of delay caused by the state's budget impasse in Richmond, the 12-member board reviewed proposals up until minutes before last night's meeting. Unlike years past, the debate over the budget was minimal and discussion lasted less than 15 minutes.
"I think this budget enables us to do things for students that we haven't been able to do for a while and enables us to meet the needs of more kids living in poverty," said board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill), who chairs the budget committee.
Until last month, Gibson and fellow school officials had no idea how much funding the region's largest school system would receive from the state. In April, Interim Superintendent Brad Draeger said drastic measures -- from cutting after-school sports to delaying the school year -- might be needed if the state budget stalemate dragged on and Fairfax did not receive the $337.1 million it was pledged in the original budget proposal submitted by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
As it turned out, the state sent an additional $28.4 million to the 166,000-student system.
But Gibson said Fairfax schools had to account for the fact that the county granted the system $81 million -- $39 million less than requested. At the same time, the district found savings. As a result, the system will have $18 million more than expected, and last month, school officials started planning what to do with it.
"One of the casualties of this year's schedule, because of the state acting so late, is that we got everything a couple of weeks ago," Gibson said. "But the entire board is pleased."
Nine more schools in the county will convert to full-day kindergarten, and several kindergarten classrooms will employ a specialized, phonics-intensive reading program known as the Waterford curriculum. About 30 positions will be added to elementary schools and about 25 to middle schools to reduce class size.
Fees for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests will also be eliminated as part of an effort to diversify the pool of students taking both the college-level courses and the tests.
Both Republican-backed members of the School Board voted to approve the budget, but one of them, Stephen M. Hunt (At Large), worried that the School Board was setting itself up for an even larger budget -- and expectations -- next year.
Hunt said that with $18 million more coming to the school budget than expected, "most of that is going into recurring costs. I would have preferred to see us give us a little buffer for future needs."
And although all of the county's teachers will receive salary increases under the budget, both teacher unions said the heftier raises will apply more to teachers at the lower end of the pay scale, while veteran teachers will receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase.
"When you've been sitting at the top of the scale and you only get a 3 percent increase, it always seems like it's not enough," said Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association.