The Washington Post

Fairfax schools chief preparing for worst as budget battle begins with supervisors

Fairfax schools superintendent Karen Garza said she is preparing several contingency plans in the event her entire funding request is not met by the county supervisors.

At a budget work session Thursday night, Garza said that her proposed $2.5 billion budget is in line with previous requests made to the supervisors. Overall, her proposal is 2.4 percent larger than last year’s approved budget and calls for $96 million in cuts, including eliminating 731 staff positions and increasing class sizes.

“The needs we have before us are extraordinarily great,” Garza said. “I’m a classroom teacher, and these are hard cuts to contemplate.”

Garza contends that the school system faces a number of uncontrollable expenditures, including $25 million in costs related to rising student enrollment and $37.5 million in state-mandated retirement rate increases.

But the proposed budget also includes about $15.9 million in salary increases that the board approved last year, and which went into affect in January, and $41 million in raises for most teachers.

“I’m very well aware of what we’ve asked of county board of supervisors is great,” Garza said. “It’s our collective responsibility to reflect the needs of our school system,” in the budget.

Garza is calling for a 5.7 percent increase in county funds, though supervisors have stated that the schools should only expect a 2 percent increase.

School board member Sandy Evans said that the county is not meeting the funding needs of the schools, which supervisors have described in the past as “world-class.”

“At what point will they underfund us until they can no longer say that?” Evans said.

Garza told school board members Thursday that her staff had composed four budget scenarios to prepare for different funding levels that the supervisors could offer. But Garza declined to tell school board members or the public the details of each plan.

“It doesn’t behoove us in some cases to talk about those because we might upset lots of people,” Garza said, noting that the list of possible cuts had hurt morale around the school system.

In an interview, Garza said that the budget plan for a two percent increase in county funds would not include the $41 million for salary raises and would call for an even bigger increase in class sizes.

“I’m not being melodramatic — it's not pretty,” Garza said.

School board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said that presenting the supervisors with the four contingency plans could help illustrate that each funding level comes with different consequences for the schools.

“Is it not prudent to go ahead and lay the cards on the table?” Schultz said. “If you give us what you said, these are the consequences of that choice.”

Garza said that releasing more information could ultimately hurt the school system and place pressure on the supervisors.

“They feel like we’ve put things out there [for cuts] before to get the community mad at them,” Garza said. “We’ve tried to protect the process from that kind of angst.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.

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