The acting superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools is proposing a $2.8 billion budget for next school year that includes $92 million to boost employee pay, a proposal that could be a tough sell after county voters rejected a meals tax that was projected to bring in millions of dollars in additional funding.
Steve Lockard, who took the school system’s helm in November upon Karen Garza’s sudden departure, said he hopes to continue investing in teacher salaries so that the county can attract the best educators. While the school system has lagged behind some of its neighbors in pay, Lockard hopes to direct $33.2 million to boost the pay scale for teachers in the coming school year and an additional $44 million to give all employees a raise.
“A big priority for us is to make sure that we have the very best teachers that we can in front of our students every day,” Lockard said in an interview.
But Lockard’s proposal could face resistance from the county’s Board of Supervisors — which furnishes nearly three-quarters of the school system’s budget and expressed skepticism that it could underwrite the plan to boost pay. Lockard’s overall proposal would raise the school budget by $130 million, with the county providing the bulk of the additional funds — about $108 million.
Sharon Bulova, who chairs the Board of Supervisors, said the proposal asks for more than double the growth that the county anticipates it will be able to provide. Early estimates show that county revenue will grow by about $72 million, with $49 million of that extra funding going to county schools. Bulova said she would be reluctant to raise taxes again.
“Our school system is our No. 1 priority, but we also have to recognize the difficulty that many of our residents have with real estate taxes,” Bulova said.
The school system has in recent years been quite successful in seeing its budget proposals fulfilled. Garza, who led the school system for 3 1/2 years, initiated a number of cuts while prioritizing initiatives that proved popular among parents, including later start times for high schools and full-day classes on Mondays for elementary school students.
Garza warned in 2015 that further cuts could endanger the school system and convened a budget task force to find cost savings. The task force at one point considered the possibility of cutting all sports and athletics, a proposal that drew a swift rebuke and accusations that Garza was using “alarmist” tactics to get her budget funded. She ultimately proposed a budget with no cuts and an extra $40 million to raise teacher pay. Her proposal was largely met.
This year could prove different. School officials had hoped to fund the salary increase with a county meals tax, which would have brought in nearly $70 million in revenue for county schools. But voters rejected the tax at the polls in November, and supervisors said then they were skeptical they would be able to provide the extra revenue to pay for the salary increase.
“Certainly, we’re disappointed that the meals tax did not come to fruition, so we recognize that we have some challenges ahead, and we’re certainly hopeful in collaborating with our funding partners . . . that we can meet the challenges of our budget moving forward,” Lockard said.
The proposal to boost salaries comes in a year when the school system also faces increased retirement costs — including an additional $25 million payment to the state employee’s retirement system.
School officials are lobbying to get the state to delay the mandated payment.
Sandy Evans (Mason), who chairs the Fairfax County School Board, said she was pleased to see that Lockard’s proposal included a considerable investment in teachers but acknowledged that the district faces “lean budget times.”
“If we don’t get the funding, then we’ll have more tough decisions to make,” Evans said.
Lockard said he is bracing for the possibility that the school system will have to make cuts and has resurrected the budget task force — a group of people appointed by the Board of Supervisors, school board and other entities — and has asked them to look for potential cuts. He said he is not anticipating being forced to make cuts, but he wants to be prepared should the county fall short of fulfilling the school system’s proposal.
“I’m not proposing any cuts in the budget,” Lockard said. “I do want to be prepared . . . so that should our funding not come through, we’re not sitting on our hands.”