One way or another, the Fairfax County School Board wants to levy new taxes.
As talks open Tuesday between county supervisors and school board members at a joint meeting about next year’s budget, the discussion almost certainly will include ways to increase revenue in Fairfax, including a meals tax in restaurants.
In years past, the budget negotiations have proven tense and this time around could be much of the same. The school administration faces a projected $140.7 million shortfall next year, and schools officials have been campaigning for more funds from county supervisors since September. The school administration has said that cuts to classroom programs and staff layoffs are possible if the funding goal is not met.
Schools officials — reluctant to continue relying on the supervisors for help — have been seeking new ways to meet their budget needs: taxes.
Late last month, school board members publicly called on the Virginia legislature to amend the state constitution to grant them independent taxing authority, a move that would sever the financial tether between the school board and the supervisors.
School board member Ted Velkoff (At Large), who chairs the budget committee, said that independent taxing authority could lead to more accountability for school board members.
“It’s very easy for school board members to advocate for basically unrestrained increases in spending because school board members are not directly responsible for producing that revenue,” Velkoff said.
Not all board members believe in the new taxing authority. School board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said the administration’s inability to be more prudent with finances led to the current crisis, and she does not approve of any new taxes, no matter how they are justified to the public.
“You have to understand what the board is advocating for is the ability to jack up your taxes,” Schultz said. “We couch things in phrases that sound nice for a moment. But the bottom line is the school board wants to raise taxes and raise them a lot.”
A movement pushing for a 4 percent meals tax in restaurants is gaining momentum in Fairfax as a means to raise about $100 million a year for the schools. A 4 percent meals tax in Fairfax would add $1.20 to a $30 restaurant bill.
“It’s a major opportunity for us to adequately fund education in Fairfax County,” said supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon). “I think we’re reaching a point where we seriously have to look at it as an option.”
Hyland said that the tax would be discretionary, because residents have the option of skipping restaurants. Such a tax also can bring in revenue from tourists, commuters and other nonresidents who eat in the county.
A similar measure passed earlier this month in Henrico County. Residents voted, 52 percent to 48 percent, in favor of a 4 percent meals tax, with the projected $18 million in revenue going toward schools. In Chesterfield County, however, residents this year voted down a meals tax referendum, 56 percent to 44 percent.
According to Chesterfield County officials, 45 of Virginia’s 95 counties have some kind of meals tax. In the Washington area, Fairfax City, Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlington County have meals taxes.
But a previous attempt to pass a Fairfax meals tax, in 1992, failed with 58 percent of voters opposing it. Hyland said county officials weren’t prepared at the time for the campaign the restaurant industry waged against the idea.
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said that placing a meals tax on the ballot in the next election is a risky political proposition.
A meals tax is “always on the table in that its one of the few tools in the tool box,” to raise revenue in the county, Cook said. “But the general consensus is that the business community would fight it.”
Kristen Amundson, a former Fairfax County School Board member who served for about a decade in the General Assembly in the 2000s, said a meals tax supporting schools could pass.
“Nobody moves to Fairfax because of the roads,” she said. “They move there because of the schools.”
According to a report from the North Carolina School Boards Association, more than 90 percent of the 15,000 local school boards across the country have taxing authority.
Superintendent Karen Garza had taxing authority in her previous post leading the Lubbock Independent School District in Texas, which she has said led to more financial stability in the schools’ budget.
But even school board members acknowledge that attaining taxing authority involves a complicated legislative process in Richmond that could take at least three years to accomplish.
University of Virginia School of Law professor A.E. Dick Howard, a state constitutional law expert, said that in Virginia power is centralized at the state level.
“The General Assembly has been quite jealous of its prerogatives and not inclined to give counties and cities independent authority in any area,” said Howard, who led the commission that wrote Virginia’s current constitution in 1971.