Fairfax County Public Schools officials have sounded the alarm early in the budget process that they believe the school system — the nation’s 10th largest — could be between $80 million and $100 million short next year and could face serious cuts to central programs. A task force charged with recommending possible trims suggested, among other things, that athletics could be cut to save millions of dollars, a controversial idea that immediately drew criticisms from athletics boosters, coaches and athletes.

The county last week unveiled a new budget tool to allow members of the community to suggest how the county could make cuts to help the school system balance its $2.6 billion budget.

Here, the chair and vice chair of the county’s School Board argue that under-funding could threaten Fairfax’s ability to provide an excellent education to its nearly 190,000 students. The opinions in this viewpoint are those of Pat Hynes and Sandy Evans and do not necessarily reflect the views of the county School Board or the school system. — The Washington Post

By Pat Hynes and Sandy Evans

The Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Fiscal Year 2017 (school year 2016-17) budget has been in the headlines lately, as Superintendent Karen Garza and the School Board try to get ahead of a very challenging fiscal forecast, which follows several years of revenues that have not kept pace with needs. We find ourselves, more than ever, seeking community input on how best to prioritize the choices we may have to make.

Fairfax County’s public schools are among the best in the world. This success is the result of decades of investment by a community that knows the value of a great school system. The business and community leaders of this county have put the schools first for decades. That long-term investment has allowed our parents and teachers to focus on delivering the promise of an excellent education for every child in Fairfax County.

Together, we have built schools that are models for the nation, with academic and extracurricular programs that meet the unique needs of each child. This includes children with high academic success, children with special needs, children who prefer alternative paths beyond traditional college, and children with disrupted educations. Together, as a community, we recognize the value a good education provides to the benefit of individuals and our society.

Unfortunately, over the past decade, we have seen a persistent and unsustainable trend of insufficient funding for our schools. Whatever else we hear in this election year about FCPS’ budget challenges, one truth demands our attention: annual spending per pupil, in real dollars, is $1,000 less today than in 2008. Because revenue increases have not kept pace with growing enrollments and costs, FCPS has weathered multiple years of pay freezes for employees and class-size increases, and reductions in employees in a number of critical support roles.

The breadth and depth of that under-investment in public education is extraordinary in Fairfax County history. We have spent the last seven years slicing away at what took decades to build, and the worst may be yet to come. The estimate for the FCPS budget shortfall for school year 2016-17 (FY 2017) has been projected at approximately $80 million after including a 3 percent increase in funding from Fairfax County. The budget shortfall could fall above or below the preliminary estimate. The shortfall is uncertain because there are costs and funding that are not determined until later in the budget process.

Difficult and painful decisions will have to be made in the coming months. Superintendent Garza, with support from the School Board, has assembled a task force of community stakeholders to do the unpleasant work of suggesting how to balance the budget. This difficult task requires proposing cuts to beloved programs. The task force’s recommendations, due in October, will give the Superintendent and the School Board valuable information about community priorities.

The School Board must present a balanced budget. School boards in Virginia cannot raise revenue. Nearly 71 percent of FCPS funding comes from Fairfax County, 23 percent from the state, and 1.6 percent from the federal government with the remainder from other sources. While overall school funding has increased since 2008, these increases have not covered the cost of just four major expenses: enrollment growth, employee salary increases, required retirement system increases, and the rising cost of health care. Today, FCPS teachers are among the lowest paid on average in the Washington, D.C., region, and as surrounding districts improve compensation, our teachers fall further behind.

For those who may think this is business as usual, and that the school system is being unnecessarily alarmist, evidence from other Virginia school districts demonstrates the very real damage being done by years of state and local under-funding. A 2015 survey of Virginia school divisions by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (80 percent of districts responding) found that 51 percent have eliminated electives such as fine arts and foreign languages, and 28 percent have eliminated co-curricular programs such as athletics. Reducing educational opportunities for children threatens to become the new normal in Virginia.

Together we here in Fairfax County demand the best for our children, and we should. We want the best teachers, the best programs, and the best facilities in order to ensure our children can compete in the 21st century. Previous generations built Fairfax County Public Schools to be the best, and we have inherited that legacy. As we face year after year of deeper and deeper cuts, however, we have to ask ourselves whether we can continue to honor that tradition and keep our promise to future generations.

We want the community’s input. Visit www.fcps.edu/savefcps to learn more and submit your feedback on how FCPS should balance the budget via the “Budget Proposal Tool.”

Pat Hynes
Chair and Hunter Mill District Member
Fairfax County School Board

Sandy Evans
Vice Chair and Mason District Member
Fairfax County School Board

This viewpoint reflects the opinions of the authors.