|A class at Falls Church High School.|
Every year, Fairfax County Public Schools officials start getting ready for the budget cycle with dire predictions about the lack of funds—and somehow they find the money to keep going.
This year, it’s a lot worse, says Superintendent Karen Garza. There is a $140.7 million shortfall, which Garza attributes to uncontrollable factors, including a $21 million decrease in state funding and an increase in insurance costs. At the same time, FCPS owes the state a $37 million contribution to the Virginia Retirement System.
The FCPS budget is dependent on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ budgetary decisions. More than half (52.7 percent) of the county’s budget goes to the school system, while 70 percent of FCPS’s revenue comes from the county.
Every one-cent increase in the tax rate provides $20.7 million in revenue, says Kristen Michael, director of the FCPS Office of Budget Services. Individual households’ tax payments are a combination of the tax rate and their real estate assessment.
Raising the tax rate would be extraordinarily difficult, as most county residents don’t have children in public schools and many tend to be more concerned with their own tax burden than in seeing the value of well-funded schools.
The total amount of K-12 funding available from the state for 2014 is actually below the 2009 level. Fairfax County’s share on a per-pupil basis is far below what other counties receive due to the Local Composite Index, an allocation formula that provides a larger share of funding to poorer counties. Fairfax County received $1,855 in state aid per pupil, compared to a state average of $3,420.
The lion’s share of the FCPS budget approved for FY 2014, over 88 percent, is spent on salaries and benefits—and most of those funds go to pensions for retirees. Another 10 percent goes to logistics (for things like textbooks and bus fuel) and 1 percent is transferred to other programs, for things like prekindergarten and summer school.
When looked at in terms of operating expenditures, 88 percent goes to instruction, 6 percent goes to transportation, 4 percent goes to facilities management, and 4 percent goes to general support, which includes the central administration.
Fairfax County spent $13,564 per pupil in 2013, which puts FCPS in the middle of the pack compared to other school systems in the region. Arlington, Alexandria, and Montgomery County all spend mor, for example, while Prince George’s County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County spend less.
FCPS is also in the middle regionally when it comes to salaries for beginning teachers, but is closer to the bottom in mid-career salaries. The projected $140.7 million deficit does not take into account a salary increase for employees nor money for any new programs.
Many teachers can’t afford to live in the county, and if salaries continue to remain stagnant, more teachers will find better-paying jobs in other jurisdictions, Garza warns.
In 2009, FCPS requested a state review of its operations to look for potential efficiencies. That study was finally completed and the report was presented to the school board in September. If the state’s recommendations were adopted, FCPS would save only $2.3 million in the first year and $10.8 million over five years. According to Garza, “the good news is we are very efficient; the bad news is they couldn’t identify a lot of other efficiencies.”
What all this means is that some difficult decisions will have to be made. Remember the uproar a couple of years ago when FCPS tried to eliminate fourth-grade strings and started charging fees for students taking Advanced Placement tests and participating in sports? Proposed cutbacks this year could be even more painful.
Garza has scheduled a “listening tour,” with meetings throughout the county to elicit feedback from parents, students, employees, and community members on their priorities for the school system—and budget issues are likely to be a major topic. The meeting for the Mason District is scheduled for Nov. 6, 7 p.m., at Stuart High School.
“We know there are a lot of competing interests,” Garza says. “We know we will have to make cuts. There are no other options.”