|A fourth-grade class at Mason Crest Elementary School.|
Now that the Board of Supervisors has released an advertised budget for fiscal year 2015 that would only provide a 2 percent increase in the amount of funds to be transferred to Fairfax County Public Schools—rather than a 5.7 percent increase sought by Superintendent Karen Garza and the school board—school advocates are mobilizing the public to urge the BoS to come up with more money.
School board member Sandy Evans (Mason) held a town hall meeting at Stuart High School March 11, where FCPS Chief Financial Officer Susan Quinn explained why a larger increase in the county transfer is needed to offset enrollment growth and uncontrollable costs.
Quinn said FCPS needs an additional $25.8 million to meet the needs of the growing student population. Enrollment has been increasing at the rate of 2,500 students a year and that growth rate is expected to continue. By 2020 enrollment is projected to reach 200,000.
The mix of students in changing too, with greater increases in higher-cost students, including those eligible for free and reduced-price lunches (this population is now 28 percent of the total), and more special education students with more severe disabilities.
A major uncontrollable cost is the school system’s obligation to contribute $38 million into the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). Another 1.4 million is needed to cover higher health insurance costs.
If FCPS ends up with just a 2 percent increase in county funds, as proposed in the BoS advertised budget, the school system would only receive a $34 million increase—not enough to even offset the mandatory VRS contribution, Quinn said. That means FCPS would have to make drastic cuts in programs and services in an already-tight budget.
One way the county could increase funds for schools is by raising property taxes and passing along some of that additional revenue to FCPS. The advertised tax rate approved by the BoS March 4 gives the supervisors the option of increasing the tax rate by as much as two cents, from the current rate of $1.085 per $100 of assessed value to $1.105. A one-cent increase would amount to $22 million.
Even with a 5.7 percent increase in county funds, Garza’s $2.5 billion budget includes some tough cuts, including the elimination of 700 teachers (mostly by attrition). That would result in increasing classes by half a student on average in elementary and middle schools and by one student in high schools.
Garza’s proposed budget, which was endorsed by the school board, is $59.4 million over the current year budget, a 2.4 percent increase. In addition to seeking funds to cover the uncontrollable costs, the budget would require fees for taking AP and IB tests, eliminate assistant principals in small elementary and middle schools, cut custodial and clerical positions, cut professional development, and defer equipment replacement, among other things.
The proposed budget also includes step increases for employees. FCPS leaders believe it’s necessary to pay teachers competitive salaries to maintain the quality of the school system. Evans said anecdotal evidence suggests teachers are abandoning Fairfax County schools to work in higher-paying school districts nearby, such as Arlington and Alexandria.
Evans raised the possibility that if the state budget, not yet approved by the General Assembly, provides more money for schools, she would like the AP and IB fees eliminated. However, a small portion of the FCPS operating budget comes from state revenues. The vast majority, 72 percent, is from the county.
If the BoS does not come up with additional revenue or otherwise increase the schools transfer funds, FCPS would have to make even deeper cuts—affecting class size, teacher pay, and the instructional program.
Evans urged the public to come to the budget town hall next week and also to sign up to speak at the BoS hearings on the budget April 8-10. There is also a Braddock District Budget Town Hall scheduled for April 1Robinson Secondary School.
The BoS is scheduled to approve the 2015 budget and tax rate on April 29. The school board will then approve a final FCPS budget by the end of May.
When a member of the audience suggested FCPS cut back on preschool rather than reduce spending on programs that benefit older students, Stuart Principal Prospera Calhoun disagreed, noting that children who have an opportunity to attend preschool do much better academically when they get older—even in high school.
Several people brought up the problem of overcrowded schools in Mason District. Evans agreed that is a serious problem, noting that nearly all the schools in Mason are overcrowded, some severely, or are projected to be over capacity within the next few years. School facilities, however, are not addressed in the FCPS operating budget.
One member of the audience blamed lax code enforcement, resulting in too many families crowded into houses and apartments. And someone else said the supervisors are too supportive of developers, resulting in lots of new apartments, thus contributing to even more overcrowding.
Developers are supposed to contribute proffers at the rate of $10,800 per student expected to live in new housing. Those funds are used at the affected schools. They can be used for things like trailers, but it’s not money enough to build a new school. Meanwhile, there is concern that the supervisors are waiving proffers in some cases.