When schools in Fairfax County open next fall, students and teachers are expected to contend with larger class sizes. Hundreds of teachers will go without raises they were anticipating. Alternative schools are bracing to trim programs. Student athletes who take the field will be asked to pay a new $50 fee.
Facing a revenue shortfall, the county school board slashed more than $50 million from its spending plan last month, forcing cuts that will be felt in a multitude of ways across the 188,000-student district. Critics worry those moves could harm the premier reputation of Virginia’s largest school system.
“Teachers are going to keep leaving. Property values are going to go down. Testing scores are going to go down,” said Dana Jackins, a Fairfax mother whose organization, Class Size Counts, is fighting a losing battle to shrink class sizes in the county. “We cannot sustain resting on our laurels, acting like we’re the best, when it’s cracking.”
Last year, school officials were hopeful that county voters would approve a tax on restaurant meals and prepared foods, which would have given the school budget a $67 million annual boost to teachers’ pay. But in November, voters rejected the tax. The County Board of Supervisors, which furnishes the lion’s share of the school budget, would not make up the difference.
Instead, the school system was left to search for $50 million in cuts from its proposed budget. For hours, board members clashed over where to make the cuts, finally passing a $2.8 billion budget for the coming school year on a 9-to-3 vote in the early hours of May 26.
Board members held fast to a multiyear plan to increase teacher pay at a cost of $60 million but voted to make sacrifices elsewhere, including freezing pay for other school employees and laying off some central-office staff workers. They also voted to increase class sizes — saving nearly $16 million by hiring fewer teachers next year — and will charge students who want to participate in after-school activities $50, which will raise an estimated $1.7 million. It’s the first time since 2011 that the district will be charging a fee.
“We have a challenging budget year. . . . None of the things that we wanted to move forward with are desirable,” acting superintendent Steve Lockard said of the cuts in an interview before the vote.
Scott Brabrand, the head of Lynchburg City Public Schools, has been tapped to lead Fairfax County schools starting July 10. The stretched budget will pose one of his biggest challenges.
Although board members said they were pleased to raise teacher salaries, they were disheartened by the decision to increase class sizes across the board. Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) voted against the budget, saying the board should have worked to find other solutions rather than cramming more students into classrooms.
“The money is supposed to drive student achievement, and if you aren’t spending your money in the classroom so that it is affecting student achievement, something’s wrong,” Schultz said. She unsuccessfully lobbied for spending less on English as a Second Language instruction, slashing from the superintendent’s office, cutting foreign-language instruction in elementary schools and increasing class sizes at high-needs schools, which benefit from extra funds to keep classes small. “We haven’t done our homework,” she said.
Fairfax County has among the highest elementary school class sizes in the D.C. region, with 22.4 students per classroom teacher in 2016-17, according to a report prepared by the Washington Area Boards of Education. Middle and high school class sizes were closer to the average for the region, with an average of 24.6 and 25.8 students per teacher, respectively.
Class sizes vary widely from school to school. The district directs more resources on a per-student basis to high-needs schools, where class sizes are frequently far lower than in those that serve middle-class and affluent neighborhoods.
School officials expect average class sizes to grow by about half a student with the cutbacks. The school district plans to hire fewer teachers next year and rebalance staff across schools. Officials said the change will be difficult to detect in many schools, but that was little solace to parents and students who say that class sizes are already unsustainably large.
Randy Weidman, set to graduate from Chantilly High on Wednesday, said he regularly crowded in with four or five other students around lab experiments intended for two.
“We are losing hands-on lab experience,” said Weidman, an aspiring doctor who will head to the University of Miami in the fall. During his freshman year, his French class had 37 students. “It was a fire hazard. You couldn’t back out of your desk without hitting the person behind you.”
Jackins, of Class Size Counts, said the school board should have come up with a different solution. Class Size Counts started an online petition to get the board to change course, garnering nearly 950 signatures.
“We remain convinced that there’s a lot that could still be done to prioritize the quality of classrooms and not balance the budget on the backs of students and teachers,” Jackins said.
Some schools will take a significant hit. Mountain View Alternative School will lose seven staff members out of about 60, including the technology coordinator who publishes the school newspaper online and a family consumer sciences teacher, who also oversees the school’s program for pregnant and parenting students.
Mountain View Principal Gary Morris said it means the school will not be able to offer electives next school year. Morris said alternative schools have often been protected from cuts because they serve vulnerable students, including those with discipline issues, recent immigrants and older students who need to support their families while earning their diplomas.
“When it came down to the budget, the alternative schools were very rarely looked upon as places to go and impact,” Morris said. “This year, according to the powers that be, it appears that they have to go everywhere and find money.”
While many teachers will get a raise, the school district moved to cut some steps from the pay scale for teachers without master’s degrees, meaning that about 425 who were expecting raises will instead see their salaries frozen. Under the 2016-17 scale, teachers without a master’s degree would get a pay bump of about $2,500, to $82,000, when moving into their 21st year with the district. Under the new scale, those teachers will get no raise because the scale will top out at the 19th year.
David Gardziel, a physical education teacher and assistant student activities director at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said he had anticipated a $4,000 raise next school year, his 24th year with the district. Now he does not expect to get one. He earned about $92,300 this school year on an extended-day contract.
Gardziel said the school district is not keeping its word to veteran teachers who “have dedicated their loyalty and paid their dues.” His raise “was just ripped away without any notice,” he said.