Despite warnings that the school system could face devastating program cuts this year, Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Karen Garza laid out an ambitious $2.7 billion spending plan Thursday that leaves the budget intact while adding more than $40 million in teacher raises and including an effort to trim class sizes at elementary schools.
The proposal marks a sudden and significant change in the tone of the county’s budget talks, which began months ago with a fixation on cuts, including a controversial suggestion to drop all school sports and activities to save millions of taxpayer dollars. Garza, who had warned that the proposal could include a drastic reduction in services, instead included no cuts for the first time in her tenure amid plans to lobby the county for additional funding.
Cuts still could be coming to Virginia’s largest school district if the county, which furnishes nearly three-quarters of the school budget, does not fulfill Garza’s request.
“I can no longer propose cuts, because by doing so, the implication is that I believe that cuts are appropriate, and they are simply not,” Garza said at a news conference Thursday in the library of West Potomac High School. “Any of these next round of cuts, if necessary, will change the face of our school system, the very school system that is considered the foundation of Fairfax County and the very reason many families and businesses are here in this county.”
Garza’s budget, which is expected to undergo several county School Board changes before it is presented to county supervisors, seeks $1.9 billion from Fairfax taxpayers. That’s about $67 million — or 3.5 percent — more than county officials signaled they would provide to schools this year while the county government as a whole is facing a shortfall.
The proposal includes step increases and a cost-of-living raise for teachers along with $40 million to boost teacher salary levels. The superintendent fears that the district’s teacher salaries — lower than those in some neighboring school systems — are hurting its ability to attract top talent, a problem exacerbated by a nationwide teaching shortage. The school district started this year with 200 vacancies because it could not hire enough teachers.
Garza also has proposed allocating $10 million to trim class sizes at elementary schools, where some rooms now pack in more than 30 students. The district averages more than 22 elementary school students per teacher, which is at the higher end for schools in the region. Garza proposes that the district spend the money to hire additional teachers so that no elementary school class has more than 30 students.
School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) worries that the proposal would lead the county Board of Supervisors to contemplate a tax increase to raise revenue, a move she thinks would be unpopular.
“If the proposals between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board lead to tax increases or contemplating a tax increase . . . I think there’s going to be a visceral reaction from the public,” Schultz said.
Thursday’s announcement signaled that officials are probably going to have another tense budget season. The negotiations are perennially rancorous as school officials warn that cuts will hurt the high-performing school system, long a selling point for the county. Most of Garza’s budget request was funded last year, but she has cautioned for months that the school district would face significant cuts unless the county could provide more money.
School officials warned last summer that the system’s shortfall could be as much as $100 million, and they assembled a citizen task force to propose ways to curtail school spending. The 36-member task force ultimately suggested raising class sizes across the district and charging more student fees — such as for taking the PSAT exam — to increase revenue. Another suggestion — to cut all school sports and activities — riled parents and other public officials who suggested that Garza was using scare tactics to press for more money.
In August, Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, called the talk of cutting sports “alarmist.” She said in an emailed statement Thursday that the board “is committed to working together with the Superintendent and the School Board regarding funding for students in our public schools.”
Unless the county can come up with an additional $67 million for the school system, the School Board would have to look for cuts itself.
The district has slashed nearly a half-billion dollars from its budgets since 2008, largely through staff attrition and allowing hiring to wait even as enrollment boomed. The district has lost more than 2,100 teaching positions to cuts during the past seven years and now has just more than 15,000 teachers.
At the same time, the district said that the student population has changed and that many of the children who attend school in Fairfax require additional resources. Nearly 30 percent of the 187,000 students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty, and one in six students is an English language learner.
Despite an ambitious education budget proposal from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the district is not expecting a big increase in state aid. Much of the state’s spending for teacher positions and raises will do little to help a district like Fairfax, where the state pays a comparatively small portion of teacher salaries.
Garza presented her proposal to the School Board on Thursday evening. The School Board will formulate its own proposal and is slated to vote on it in February, with plans to present it to the Board of Supervisors in April. The supervisors are scheduled to vote on the budget in late April.