Fairfax County school administrators have begun pleading their case for a $134 million boost in funding for the next school year, signaling that they want to increase teacher salaries while also grappling with burgeoning pension and health-care costs.
Superintendent Karen Garza presented a budget forecast this month before the county Board of Supervisors, outlining her vision for the coming school year and urging voters to support a meals tax that will be on the ballot in November. The tax would be levied on restaurant meals, and officials estimate that it could bring in $100 million in additional revenue, most of which would flow to the county school system.
Garza’s presentation marked the start of the school system’s public budgeting process, an often-contentious debate between the school system and the county’s Board of Supervisors. The supervisors furnish most of the school system’s budget.
Last year, Garza warned that the school system could have faced dramatic cuts — with a committee suggesting that high school sports could be jettisoned for significant savings — if her budget proposal were not fulfilled. That idea, and some other suggestions for budget reductions, raised community ire.
The school system ultimately won funding to raise teacher salaries and to reduce class sizes in certain grades. Garza is set to leave the district in December; she plans to lead an Ohio-based educational nonprofit group.
For the coming fiscal year, which begins in July, school officials hope to continue their investment in teacher pay, which lags that of neighboring districts and has led to an exodus of educators. County officials have suggested that raises for teachers are contingent on passage of the meals tax.
In addition to providing raises according to teachers’ education and years of experience, the school system wants to boost overall salaries — particularly for midcareer teachers — to keep the district competitive as it vies for top talent.
The school system hopes to spend close to $100 million on boosting teacher pay. School board chair Sandy Evans (Mason) said she wants to give an extra increase to midcareer teachers, for whom pay is especially at a competitive disadvantage compared with neighboring districts. A midcareer teacher in Fairfax is paid about $20,000 less than one in Arlington.
“We have fallen behind where we want to be in teacher pay, particularly in that midcareer level,” Evans said.
Evans said the budget is feeling pressure from uncontrollable expenses, such as an increase in employee health-care costs, a state-mandated payment to the pension fund and costs associated with educating an increasing population of students. But she hopes to lobby state officials to readjust pension requirements, potentially allowing the district save $25 million in the coming fiscal year.
School board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said she believes that the school system needs to go back to the drawing board and begin to look for more cuts and efficiencies rather than asking taxpayers for more money. Schultz, a fiscal conservative, has opposed the meals tax.
“We have to start having a conversation about wants, needs and have-to-haves and start paring back,” Schultz said.
Evans said the district already has cut back, freezing teacher pay and increasing class sizes when revenue stagnated. This fiscal year has been the first in Garza’s three-year tenure that the district has not endured budget cuts.
“We have cut and cut and cut,” Evans said.