When new Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza recently warned that a $140.7 million budget shortfall might lead to layoffs and devastating program cuts, several veteran county officials couldn’t help but think of a classic children’s fable: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Top officials say they’ve seen the story play out again and again during annual budget negotiations between school officials and the county board of supervisors, dating to the early 1990s. Each time, the school system declares an impending disaster only to finish the school year with minimal cuts and, often, millions of dollars in extra, unspent cash, county officials said. The schools ended 2013 with $55 million in unspent funds after schools finance officials projected a $126 million shortfall.
The pattern has created frustration and concern in Virginia’s largest county, especially now that Garza, in her first months leading the 184,500-student school system, has made the same annual entreaty: We need more taxpayer money or the schools will suffer.
But Garza, who joined Fairfax in July, has emphasized that this year is different. With escalating health insurance costs for the schools’ 23,000 employees, along with an increasing student body that has brought higher demands for English as a second language classes and subsidized lunches, district officials say this year’s budget talks are more urgent than any in recent history.
“We’re not crying wolf,” school board member and budget committee chair Ted Velkoff (At Large) recently told a group of parents. “This is a real crisis.”
Garza has held several community meetings in recent weeks to introduce herself to parents and teachers. The budget has been the main topic of discussion at each event.
Garza frequently refers to the projected shortfall as a “crisis” emerging from factors beyond the administration’s control: It includes $25 million in costs related to surging enrollment, $27 million in health insurance rate increases and $37 million in employee retirement contribution payments. Garza has said that she plans to include salary increases for employees, which could add an additional $42.7 million to the shortfall.
Several members of the county board of supervisors, which funds the school district’s $2.5 billion budget, said they want to ensure that one of the nation’s top-performing school districts doesn’t slip. But they also have to weigh the annual feeling that perhaps the schools are bluffing.
“We get into it at budget time, but they do an outstanding job of teaching our kids and never in a million years would I want to adopt a budget that caused that to deteriorate,” said Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) noted that last year the school board said they required additional funding to provide employees with a pay raise. The school board did not get the funding but pushed ahead anyway, granting salary increases of 2 percent for the district’s 26,000 employees. It amounted to $22 million in extra costs.
“That is frustrating on our end, that we’re not sure what the actual effect is going to be when we make a budget decision,” Cook said.
The two sides plan to meet Tuesday to discuss spending plans.
The feeling among some county officials that the school district overemphasizes budget problems crystallized during a 2004 retirement party for former superintendent Daniel Domenech.
U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), then the chairman of the county board of supervisors, recalls making his way toward the door of the Fair Oaks event when Domenech called out to him from across the room, raising his wallet into the air.
“Hey, Gerry. I’ve got your wallet,” Domenech told Connolly. “I’ve been stealing it for years!”
Domenech said in an interview that Connolly’s account was accurate.
To Connolly, the exchange confirmed his suspicion that the board of supervisors was being taken during budget negotiations.
“Think of the cynicism that he was revealing, acting like none of us got it,” Connolly said in a recent interview. “That’s the kind of experience that really sticks with you.”
Anecdotes like that have county supervisors wrestling with how to preserve what all see as Fairfax County’s greatest asset while still having enough to keep libraries running and police on the streets in the face of a projected countywide budget shortfall of $25 million.
“We’ve already made significant cuts across the county,” said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee.) “This isn’t just a schools thing.”
The budget for schools makes up more than half of the county’s budget, officials said. This year, the board of supervisors is offering a 2 percent increase in school funding, about $34.3 million. Schools officials argue that it isn’t enough, and they express frustration over having to go to the county board for funding requests every year.
Connolly, who served as a supervisor from 1995 to 2008, said a bitter debate between the county and the schools occurred every year.
“At budget time, you always braced yourself for all the bad things you knew you’d hear,” he said. “ ‘The sky is falling, the Earth will open up and swallow us and here are all the things, by the way, that we’re going to cut.’ You can do that, but if you do, you’re going to lose credibility.”
Bulova said the template for budget negotiations was set in the 12-year tenure of former superintendent Robert “Bud” Spillane, during the 1980s and 1990s.
Spillane, 79, a veteran of the politically combative districts of New York City and Boston, said his goal was to extract as much money from the supervisors as possible.
“I hate to put it this way, that I enjoyed the politics of it,” Spillane said. “I enjoyed the challenge of trying to do what was right to keep it a great school system, and I didn’t mind getting into the fray.”
After Spillane came Domenech, also from New York public schools. When he began his seven-year tenure in 1997, Domenech said, he found the funding process in Fairfax cumbersome.
“I certainly wasn’t shy about being a fierce advocate for the schools because I thought that was my job,” Domenech said. “Often that led to tensions.”
The relationship between the two boards faltered; many members were not on speaking terms.
“We just became so angry with each other,” Bulova said.
When Domenech retired in 2004, Jack Dale was hired as superintendent to help repair relations, largely because of his laid-back approach to business, which county officials said was a relief. He developed rapport with the supervisors.
“I wasn’t coming to try and squeeze money out of them, I was coming to genuinely learn about their perspective,” Dale said.
But in 2008, the recession arrived amid explosive growth in student population. Suddenly it was like old times again.
“There was a swing on the board of supervisors politically to become much more fiscally conservative than they had been before,” Dale said. Supervisors now “are less willing to raise the taxes.”
Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko, who served under Dale and has helped guide Garza, said that in previous years, the administration was saved by federal stimulus money and other external funding. This time, he said, it’s serious.
“We’re not blowing smoke,” Moniuszko said. “We need some help or it’s going to be pretty disastrous.”
Garza has vowed to pursue an approach similar to Dale’s, and she plans to meet with each supervisor “to heal relations between the boards today and in the future.”
But at a recent school board meeting, a sense of exasperation was already taking hold.
“If we don’t keep our schools strong, our county will not stay strong,” argued school board vice chair Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee,) saying she’s tired of the “annual ritual” of fighting with the supervisors. “I feel like it’s a duel.”