|A community meeting on the FCPS budget.|
Evans had organized the meeting to explain why the school system is facing a huge deficit – potentially up to $75 million – for fiscal year 2016-17 and solicit feedback on what programs or services could be eliminated.
“The challenge we have is that the school board will have to make difficult decisions on what to cut,” she told the crowd at Stuart High School.
“Education affects property values, so everyone should care about the school budget, not just parents,” said Sarah Mattingly, who was appointed by Evans to a school budget task force. “If you don’t speak, you really shouldn’t complain about the results.”
She urged residents to use a “budget proposal tool” on the FCPS website to estimate the impact of various cost-cutting measures and submit their ideas to the task force.
Kristen Michael, assistant superintendent for financial services, gave an overview of how FCPS came to have such a large deficit:
- Enrollment is growing every year and there have been about 22,000 new students since 2008.
- More students need special services, such as English as a Second Language (ESOL) or special education.
- More students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
- Costs for employee health insurance are rising.
- FCPS faces increased costs for its participation in the state-mandated employee retirement system.
Meanwhile, Michael said, while the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has increased the amount of funds it transfers to FCPS, those increases have not kept pace with higher costs. More than 71 percent of the school budget comes from the county, and most county revenue comes from property taxes.
Only 23 percent of FCPS funds come from the state, which is far less than what other Virginia school systems receive, but the General Assembly isn’t likely to change that, as most lawmakers are from rural areas and are not interested in changing the funding formula to benefit Northern Virginia.
At the same time, nearly half the schools are over capacity, and FCPS is way behind in renovations. Teacher salaries are slipping behind other districts in the D.C. region, especially for those with the most experience. That means the system risks losing the most qualified teachers to better-paying jobs elsewhere.
According to Michael, FCPS is already running a tight ship with the lowest level of spending on non-school-based administrators in the region. FCPS has already cut nearly $100 million and 2,175 jobs since 2008.
During the meeting, Evans read questions and comments members of the audience wrote on index cards. In response to a plea not to cut ESOL, Evans said ESOL is a legal requirement and can’t be eliminated but class sizes could be increased. Other people urged the school board not to cut arts programs or the IB program and to waive the physical education requirement for student athletes.
One suggestion under consideration is switching high schools from a seven-period day to six periods, she said. That would save money by eliminating teacher planning time, but would result in fewer electives. A change from two semesters to three trimesters is also under discussion. In addition, the board is also searching for other revenue sources, such as grants from foundations, Evans said.
Mattingly urged the audience to let the Board of Supervisors know if they are willing to see their property taxes raised or support a meals tax. A meals tax, which several other local jurisdictions have, could bring in $90 million a year. Politicians aren’t likely to stick their necks out to support higher taxes, but if enough people believe this is important, she said, it could make a difference.