Fairfax County school officials are grappling with how to plug holes in the school system’s budget after county voters rejected a meals tax that would have delivered an estimated $67 million annually.
The proposed levy would have added a four-percent tax on restaurant meals and prepared food in the county and was expected to yield an estimated $96 million, with 70 percent of that revenue going to county schools. About 290,000 voters — 54 percent — rejected the proposal while 249,000 voted in favor of it, according to unofficial election results.
The school system, one of the nation’s largest, now faces an even greater challenge in making ends meet in the coming fiscal year, when it is anticipating massive increases in retirement and health-care costs along with growing enrollment. Without the revenue from the meals tax, school officials might have to reconsider a plan to invest nearly $100 million in teacher pay, part of an effort to make salaries more competitive with neighboring districts.
Exacerbating matters, county schools will also lose out on about $4.4 million in state aid for teacher salaries next fiscal year because of a state budget shortfall.
Schools spokesman John Torre said that neither outgoing Superintendent Karen Garza nor Deputy Superintendent Steve Lockard were available to comment this week. In September, Garza announced that she would step down to take a job with an Ohio-based nonprofit group later this year, and Lockard is set to take over as interim superintendent upon her departure.
School Board chair Sandy Evans (Mason), who had campaigned for the measure, expressed deep disappointment that it did not pass, but she acknowledged that asking voters to pay more was a tough sell. She said the school system will now have to look for funding elsewhere to help make ends meet. She is pushing the state to postpone a mandated $25 million increase in the contribution to the state retirement fund that is set to take effect next year.
“We’ll have to work with our funders at the county and at the state to see what we can do to bring our salaries up, because that’s really an imperative for our school system,” Evans said.
Kevin Hickerson, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said he hopes the county will be able to make up for the loss in funding so the district can hold fast to its plan to give teachers raises.
“It’s a wait-and-see game right now,” Hickerson said. “We’re going to have to take a long, hard look at our budget and see what the County Board of Supervisors is willing to do to supplement what we’re trying to do with Fairfax County Public Schools.”
County supervisors provide more than half of the district’s $2.7 billion budget, and its chair, Sharon Bulova (D), said she does not believe that the county is in a position to provide the kind of extra funding needed to pursue the school system’s ambitious plan to boost teacher pay.
“I don’t see that happening,” Bulova said. The voters “have rejected the additional revenue that would have made it possible for us to aggressively move forward with increasing teacher salaries.”
Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) echoed that sentiment, adding that the school system will have to sacrifice elsewhere if it wants to hold fast to its plan to increase teacher pay because the board is not likely to increase property taxes this year.
School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), who describes herself as a fiscal conservative, opposed the meals tax. She said she believes taxpayers sent a message to school officials that they want their money to be better managed.
“That’s a clear indication of what they’re asking us to do with their money, which is manage it a lot better and be far more discriminating in the way that it’s used for the advancement of students,” Schultz said.
Schultz said the school system might have to weigh cuts and wants officials to reconsider the extra funding it provides to schools that serve large numbers of at-risk children. The extra staff, she said, does not appear to be helping to close the achievement gap.
“Adding more staff, adding more money doesn’t necessarily solve the problems,” she said.
Patricia Sullivan and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.