Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax County Times)

A task force looking to cut as much as $100 million from the budget of one of the nation’s largest school systems has suggested that major savings could come from getting rid of all school sports, limiting extracurricular activities and increasing class sizes.

School administrators in Virginia’s Fairfax County, which educates about 187,000 students, say they are again facing tough choices about what to keep and what to sacrifice as funding fails to keep pace with surging enrollment. Officials are projecting
a shortfall of $50 million to $100 million next year, meaning significant programming changes would need to be implemented, schools officials said.

School district officials calculated the shortfall assuming a salary increase for teachers, a growth in enrollment and a nearly $20 million drop in state funding, though some numbers will not be determined for months. The school system also is required to put an additional $46 million into teacher retirement and health benefits next year. If the county holds firm on its commitment to give the school system a 3 percent revenue bump, the maximum shortfall is estimated at $80 million.

The 36-member citizen task force was charged with finding $100 million in savings. On Monday night, the district released an early draft of potential cuts, but they are far from official, and it is early in the budget process. Some of the task force’s ideas are sure to be controversial, such as saving nearly $11 million by eliminating high school sports and more than $12 million by axing activities such as yearbook and student newspapers, curtailing music and drama programs, and reducing middle school after-school activities.

Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza has sounded budget alarms in previous years but has largely ended up with what the school system has requested, while adding initiatives. The school system spent millions of dollars moving to later high school start times, citing evidence of health and emotional benefits, and eliminating half-day Mondays in the county’s elementary schools — both popular with parents.

But Garza pointed out Tuesday that the school system also has cut millions from its proposals before going to the county and that the district has in recent years raised class sizes. With enrollment surging, Garza said the school system is going to have a hard time providing necessary services.

“We’re going to have some very painful decisions to make, because funding has not kept up with just the basic demands,” Garza said.

Cutting high school sports in one of the nation’s largest school districts would be a shocking move, and it appeared to be a dramatic opening salvo in what are often politically charged discussions about the Fairfax schools budget. Many families and companies have chosen Fairfax, the largest Washington area suburb, as their home because of the county’s top-tier schools.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she doubts that the school system would seriously consider getting rid of high school sports, a move that would prove deeply unpopular and detrimental to the traditional public school experience.

“Eliminating high school athletics is just not going to happen,” Bulova said. “I think that the rhetoric is alarmist, and I think that cut list is something that is guaranteed to generate speakers, but I think that they probably will not be things that the school board chooses to reduce.”

For athletes, eliminating sports is unthinkable. Kyle Richbourg, 18, who will be a senior at Centreville High School, plays lacrosse and football and said that sports teach him discipline and make him a better student. After graduating next year, he plans to head to the Air Force Academy, where he was recruited to play lacrosse, something he said wouldn’t be happening without school sports.

“I don’t think I’d be going to a military academy for school,” Richbourg said. “I don’t think I’d be fit for that kind of lifestyle if I didn’t have sports in my life.”

His football coach, Chris Haddock, said sports are an essential part of education for many students, teaching them discipline and a work ethic. Some athletes said their teammates might not show up to school were it not for sports.

“Sports are part of the well-rounded person that Fairfax County is trying to produce,” Haddock said. “It’s an invaluable proving ground and teaching ground for young people.”

Fairfax County schools are facing some of the same tough choices as districts across Northern Virginia. This year, Prince William County schools, dealing with a potential cut in revenue, weighed cuts to all school services not required by law — including full-day kindergarten, bus service and athletics. Ultimately, most of the budget was funded.

This year, Fairfax County had nearly all of its budget request funded — about $2.6 billion — but Garza still warned that the district would come up short next year. In a budget presentation, district officials said that per-student spending has failed to keep pace with inflation. The school system also has struggled to keep its teacher salaries on par with neighboring jurisdictions.

“We’re losing candidates to other systems,” Garza told The Washington Post in a recent meeting with reporters and editors. “It is very concerning to us.”

Garza said the task force has been focusing on ways to take a sizable bite out of the budget while making the smallest dent possible in academic opportunities for students.

The task force suggestions also included adding one student to K-12 classes and increasing preschool class sizes, a move that could yield savings of $26.2 million. Another proposal, to cut preschool for all children except those who require special education, could save the district $9 million. Other suggested cuts would hit high-poverty schools and teachers of English language learners. The district, which includes high-performing magnet high schools, also has seen an explosion in immigrant and low-income students who require extra support.

School Board Chairman Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said she hopes the financial picture will be rosier when it comes time to draw up an official budget proposal.

“What I hope happens is that we don’t have to find that much in cuts and we don’t have to do something as awful as cutting athletics,” Hynes said. “I have hope that our funders will do the right thing and maintain the quality of the schools system.”