A task force seeking to cut up to $75 million from the Fairfax County Public Schools budget has recommended charging students and their families more fees — to participate in sports as well as to take Advanced Placement and PSAT exams — while increasing class sizes across the system.
The recommendations, in a report released Monday, are part of an effort to trim significant expenditures from the school system’s $2.6 billion budget ahead of the county’s annual budgeting process, which is often a tumultuous back-and-forth among county leaders.
Superintendent Karen Garza has warned that this budget season in Virginia’s largest county will be among the bleakest the district has faced, with local and state funds failing to keep up with an enrollment explosion and the costs associated with employee health care and retirement growing. School officials estimated in September that the budget shortfall would top $71 million, but the figure could fluctuate.
The report warns that the cuts could touch every corner of the school district, which, with nearly 187,000 students, is one of the nation’s largest. The task force’s 36 members were appointed by Garza, School Board members, the county government and other organizations with the sole mission of finding potential cuts.
“The cuts identified by the Budget Task Force will negatively impact every student, teacher, parent, administrator and staff member in the Fairfax County Public School System,” the authors say in the introduction.
In August, the budget task force released a menu of proposals it was weighing to find savings, including a suggestion that cutting all high school sports across the county could result in significant savings. The idea, which would have been unprecedented for a large U.S. school district, immediately drew strong rebukes.
This week, the task force steered away from cutting sports entirely but did suggest some trims and recommended shifting the burden somewhat to parents. The group proposed charging students $200 for each sport they play. That would bring in an estimated $3.6 million. More than half of the task force’s members also backed a proposal to cut all freshman athletic teams, which would amount to a savings of $1.1 million.
Also high on the list were proposals to end the district’s practice of paying for students to take AP, International Baccalaureate and PSAT exams. The task force also recommended increasing student parking fees to $300 a year, an increase of $100. It also suggested charging $300 for families who want to send their children to other schools in the district instead of their base school.
“I wish we were not in a position where we had to consider charging some of those fees,” Garza said.
If implemented, the changes would mean that families of some high school students who play multiple sports and are college-bound could end up paying hundreds of dollars more each year in fees. Waivers would be offered to students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
The practice of charging fees varies from district to district across Northern Virginia. In Loudoun County, where School Board members once contemplated charging for bus service to aid the cash-strapped district, the school system has a $150 participation fee per sport and foots the bill for PSATs only. It gives fee waivers to those who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.
In Alexandria and Arlington, the school systems pay for AP, IB and PSAT exams, and student athletes are not charged to compete.
Garza emphasized that the report contains recommendations for how the district might trim its budget to make up for a large shortfall but does not commit the district to any action. “It doesn’t represent any final decisions,” she said.
Matt Haley, the task force’s chairman, said the group suggested fees for scenarios in which parents avail themselves of services that are completely optional, whether having their child drive to school and park or moving them to a school other than their base school.
The proposals that would save the most money include increasing class sizes across the board, an idea potentially worth $17 million but also controversial because it could directly affect classroom learning. The panel also proposed reducing the number of extra teachers and staff members sent to high-poverty schools, which could save $7.5 million.
“That gives me heartache to think about that much of this coming from the neediest kids in the neediest schools,” board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said at a board meeting Monday.
Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) was skeptical of the task force’s process and wants the board to scrutinize every department’s costs to build a budget from the ground up.
“We’re in a position where we’ve ceded the responsibility in doing the upfront work in determining priorities and architecting a budget based on those priorities,” Schultz said. “What I would like to see is this board sitting down with every department and going through the programmatic budget with each.”