Fairfax County Superintendent Karen Garza has proposed giving teachers raises, at a cost of $41 million next year, while also proposing significant staff cuts. It’s a tactic she’s used before in Texas. (Donnie Biggs/Fairfax County Public Schools)

Fairfax County’s new school superintendent made her priorities clear when she unveiled her first budget proposal, which calls for classroom teachers and staff to receive significant raises next year, at a cost of $41 million.

But Karen Garza’s $2.5 billion budget for 2015 also includes $96 million in proposed cuts, slashes that would eliminate 731 county schools staff positions. Those departing teachers, administrators and support staff would help fund the salary increases for those who remain, Garza has said.

It is a tactic that Garza has used before, both as superintendent in Lubbock, Tex., and in Houston, where she served as second-in-command of the state’s largest school district. Reducing staff can lead to quick — and lasting — cost savings while giving Garza the ability to dangle higher salaries as she works to attract a new crop of teachers.

The raises, Garza said, are crucial because Fairfax has lagged behind neighboring school systems in average teacher pay in recent years.

“Teacher quality is the most important factor to drive student achievement,” Garza said. “We recognize that we have to keep our great teachers in this organization because they are what makes this school system great. . . . There is a cost to turnover. If they leave, we hire another person and that investment starts all over again.”

As the superintendent in Lubbock, Garza made multiple cuts to her office staff, eliminating 185 administrative positions during her first year while at the same time providing salary increases for classroom teachers. She also helped raise the starting teacher salary by 16 percent, from $34,500 in 2009 to $40,000 by 2013.

Steve Massengale, president of the Lubbock Independent School District Board of Trustees, said that Garza made difficult choices that allowed the district to continue to build a strong staff.

“For us to live within our means, we had to eliminate staff,” Massengale said. “But in order for us to remain competitive and to be successful academically, we had to push the bar of that starting salary.”

While Garza served as Houston’s chief academic officer in the mid-2000s, the school system reorganized the administration’s main office, said Chuck Robinson, executive director of the Congress of Houston Teachers.

“There were enormous cuts, particularly at the central office level,” Robinson said, noting that at the same time, teachers received annual bonuses tied to academic performance.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said that Garza was known as a “pro-employee” administrator who had not forgotten her roots as a kindergarten teacher. Garza represented the Houston administration in teacher salary negotiations.

“She knew how we felt,” Fallon said. “When she could, she wanted teachers to leave happy.”

Within Garza’s first six weeks on the job in Lubbock in 2009, the school administration raised the starting teacher salary from $34,500 to $36,000. Teachers on staff also received a 3 percent raise that year.

Clinton Gill, a former Lubbock fifth-grade teacher who now works with the Texas State Teachers Association, said that Garza’s efforts led Lubbock to have one of the highest starting teacher salaries in west Texas.

At the same time, Garza consolidated schools and shook up the administration’s structure.

“She saved the district quite a bit of money,” Gill said.

Massengale said that most of the staff cuts in Lubbock were handled by attrition and incentives offered to employees nearing retirement age. But some employees were laid off, Gill said.

Garza said that she has been surprised that the early stages of the budget process in Fairfax have proven to be so challenging, with a tight budget, growing enrollment and a history of standoffs between the county’s School Board and the County Board of Supervisors.

“It’s much more difficult than I expected. When I went to Lubbock, there was a lot more low-hanging fruit. But when I came here, all that had already been done,” Garza said. “This system has been in cost-cutting mode for some time.”

Garza said that she hopes the majority of the 731 positions she has proposed to cut will be addressed through attrition from among the 22,000 employees the county has. But layoffs are a possibility in Fairfax, she said.

For those teachers who remain, a bounty might await. Garza said her ultimate goal is to lead Fairfax to be the top-paying school district in the Washington region for teachers within the next five years. Next year’s budget, with the $41 million in salary raises, is the first step, she said.

The average teacher salary at Fairfax public schools in 2013 was $64,813, sixth among Washington area school districts and well below the District ($77,512), Montgomery County ($74,855) and Arlington ($72,997).

“We need to be at the top,” Garza said. “We’ve asked so much of our employees for so long that it was important for the overall culture of our system and morale as a whole that we acknowledge our employees are important.”