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County, Schools Exchange Mars Markup

Supervisors question school budget process

Critical words from the Board of Supervisors were directed at the leaders of its public schools during “markup” of the county’s FY 2003 budget Monday.

The board voted 9-1 to approve a two-cent cut in the tax rate, cutting potential revenue by $22 million.

Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (Hunter Mill) had moved that instead of cutting the tax rate, supervisors instead transfer $22 million to schools, but her motion died for lack of a second. The one vote against the amended budget was hers.

Dranesville District Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R) voiced the supervisors’ ire at School Board Superintendent Daniel Domenech, saying “inflammatory statements by the schools’ leadership have exacerbated the situation.”

The supervisors were miffed by Domenech’s public appeals that they use $75 million from a “rainy day fund” to fully fund schools.

“The $75 million [figure] was just wrong,” Mendelsohn said, because most of that money can’t legally be touched.

But public schools officials say the money should be on the table as a potential funding source for the missing $47 million in school funding.

Mendelsohn said Domenech strained the credibility of his appeal in a year when the county must cut human services and public safety costs.

“The schools will have to tackle [their habit of] ‘crying wolf’” before the situation can resolve itself, Mendelsohn said.

BOARD OF SUPERVISORS' budget chair Sharon Bulova said schools will get $1.28 billion for operating expenses and debt service, an increase of $93.6 million, or 8.67 percent, more than last year.

Fairfax County will cut 50 vacant positions, but added 48 public safety jobs to staff a new Sully District Police station and a Hazardous Materials unit in the FIre and Rescue Department.

The supervisors preserved $9.9 million to fund pay increases for county employees, who got an average raise of 5.1 percent last year.

School employees will get an average raise of 4.6 percent.

Most uniformed employees, including police and fire, will get slightly less, from their cost of living and market rate adjustments, plus step increases that not all employees receive every year.

AFTER MONDAY’S markup meeting, Fairfax County Public Schools budget chair Janie Strauss, who like Mendelsohn represents Dranesville District, stood in the board auditorium listening to an appeal from Brian Gordon, government affairs manager for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

“Essentially, I had approached her to let her know that the Fairfax County Chamber had asked the supervisors to develop meaningful reform” in the way schools are funded, he said Tuesday.

“The system has become extremely politicized,” Gordon said. “That’s not good for the schools. That’s not good for the county. That’s not good for anybody.

“The point I was trying to make is that we are hopeful [schools] will be open to this process with the Board of Supervisors,” Gordon said later.

“Many of the comments [during markup] were indicative of a contentious relationship between the two boards. It is clear that something needs to be done.”

BUT STRAUSS was not responsive. She said officials from the two boards have been meeting all year.

“The difficulty is that we have a true structural deficit, and they are not going to cover it,” Strauss told Gordon Monday.

“The first group of students to graduate with the state’s Standards of Learning is in the 10th grade.

“The bottom line is, [if you] expect us to be like lambs to the slaughter, that is not our job. We will bleed to the very last cut.”

School and county officials “have met, and we continue to meet,” Strauss said. “We cannot talk away the structural deficit, and that is the bottom line."

Fairfax County Public Schools have no independent funding source, but depend on Fairfax County to fund operating expenses and construction costs. “The structural deficit is the same in the 2004 budget. We will be right back here.

“How many years will it take, as we keep nibbling away, and adjusting down? There will be position cuts and program pullbacks.”

“In spite of the economic difficulties, home sales continue to be pretty good. Housing sales are not slowing down,” she said.

“We are on the same page,” said Gordon.

“Somebody’s got to hurry up,” said Strauss.

“THE BOARD of Supervisors is responsible for how much [Schools] get, and the schools are responsible for where it goes,” said Gordon. “[But] the accountability is not there. The board has no say about how the money is used.

“They can’t continue to write blank checks to the School Board,” he said.

Gordon’s father, Gerry Gordon, is director of the Economic Development Authority, which like the public schools, is also funded by a 100 percent cash “transfer” from the Board of Supervisors.

The EDA’s budget roughly equals the cost of eight Project Excel schools that Domenech wants to fund this year, or $6.8 million.

The EDA’s budget was cut by five percent in markup.

“One of the things we were disappointed in is the full five percent cut in the Economic Development Authority’s budget,” said Brian Gordon. “With the shape of the economy currently, that is a poor decision.”

With real estate assessments likely to continue to rise, “This is the time we really need to focus on bringing businesses into the county,” said Gordon.

“They are using that money in the short run to lower the real estate tax rate. The effect in the long run will be to reduce real estate tax revenue by reducing equalization between the commercial and residential tax bases.”

STRAUSS WAS UNMOVED. “There has got to be an increase in revenue for Fairfax County Schools,” she told Gordon Monday.

“As we do a good job of marketing Fairfax County and inviting business here, you cannot continue to do that.”

“The EDA needs to quit advertising schools, because we can’t do this [fund schools with a structural imbalance],” she said.

But Gordon wasn’t giving up.

“We are on their radar screen. We are going to be corresponding with the School Board in coming weeks,” Gordon said.

“We will need to continue working on them. Obviously the system we have in place benefits the School Board fairly well, even though they have a contentious relationship.”