A task force’s suggestion that the Fairfax County school system could cut high school athletic programs to save money immediately stirred anxiety, frustration and incredulity across the community that supports one of the nation’s largest school districts.
Fairfax school officials said that they are facing a potential $100 million shortfall next year, leading Superintendent Karen Garza to create a 36-member task force to search for trims to what is annually a more than $2.5 billion budget. One of the suggestions proved controversial: eliminating sports and cutting other activities, such as drama, newspaper and student government, for a potential savings of nearly $24 million.
In the school system of more than 187,000 students, about 28,000 students participate in sports, at a cost of nearly $11 million. That amounts to about 15 percent of the student body that would be directly affected should the programs be cut, but boosters, players and county elected officials said the impact on morale and school spirit would be far greater because communities rally around the teams.
Some members of the school board and the county board of supervisors — which furnishes most of the school system’s budget — quickly accused the task force of histrionics, saying it was merely a tactic to anger community members in a campaign for more money. Fairfax’s budget season is often marked by tense exchanges and dire predictions as the county prides itself on having a top-tier school system.
Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said she was upset that the possibility of athletics and activities cuts would be raised, accusing the task force of creating a distraction in the early stages of the budget process.
“The notion that this idea is even being floated . . . at all is preposterous,” Schultz said. “This is the kind of pitting one community against another that yields unproductive budget conversations.”
School board member Ted Velkoff (At Large), chairman of the budget committee, said he would not support cuts to athletics or activities, but he added that the school system is running out of places to trim as its enrollment grows and that funding hasn’t kept pace.
“We’re not going to cut arts, music, sports, activities, or we will over my dead body,” Velkoff said.
Matt Haley, the chairman of the task force, is a father of two Fairfax County high school students and is a former consultant who used to restructure companies with several times the budget of Fairfax County schools. He denied that the task force was trying to employ scare tactics and said the suggestions were an effort to consider all options for cuts. The idea to cut athletics came from an online message board that the school district set up to collect suggestions from the community.
Some parents also have quietly lobbied Haley, he said. Athletics represent one of the largest costs that the school system carries that isn’t mandated by law.
“It would be silly for us to not look at what are the major drivers of the cost to a system,” Haley said. “You look at everything, even things you may not want to look at.”
For athletes and their parents, a Fairfax County without high school sports is difficult to fathom. Centreville High School football games have on occasion drawn so many spectators that officials have had to turn fans away from its 7,000-seat stadium.
“It brings the whole community together,” said Ron Willis, the president of the Centreville High School boosters’ club. Centreville has teams for boys and girls in more than 20 sports and has sent players to the National Football League.
Kyle Edwards, 18, a senior and the quarterback at Lake Braddock High School in Burke, has grown up playing football. He said it would be difficult to imagine a fall season without Friday night football games and pep rallies. Sports are at the core of a school’s identity, he said.
“It’s hard for me to think about it. I’d be pretty angry, pretty sad,” Edwards said. “For me, it’s just weird because it’s all I’ve ever known.”
Football and other school activities are an essential part of his school’s culture and education, aspects of school that complement the required academics, Edwards said.
“School would just be probably, like, 100 percent less interesting,” Edwards said. A lot of students look forward to their extracurricular activities, and it provides an incentive for them to attend classes. “I don’t know kids who love going to school seven hours a day and then doing nothing.”
That’s part of what Haley is trying to weigh as the task force wades through possible cuts. Some principals have told him that sports are the only reason some students show up to school.
“There’s an awful lot of students who come to school because of athletics,” Haley said. “That’s not a financial impact, but that has an educational impact.”