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School Board Still Carving Up Budget

Planetariums are the newest endangered species in the ever-evolving Fairfax County Public Schools budget process. Two weeks ago, the school system released the latest in a series of lists of potential budget cuts that seemingly removed the planetariums from the chopping block. The program had appeared on previous lists.

At a May 9 School Board meeting, members even made a plea for representatives of programs "taken off the table" to voluntarily give up their slot at two upcoming public hearings to allow those on the waiting list whose programs might still be under consideration for cuts an opportunity to speak.

On Friday, May 17, just days after the public hearings, the planetariums were once again under consideration for cuts.

A series of recommendations by staff, made public at a work session Monday, May 20, suggests cutting the planetarium program by half to free up $368,240 for other programs such as phasing in two Project Excel schools and fully restoring the foreign language immersion program.

"I'm concerned about the planetariums being put on the list as a revenue source. We put out those lists so people would start relying on our word that it was taken off the table and they trusted that," said School Board member Rita Thompson (At large). "I've been told they would have acted differently if they knew the planetariums would be subject to cuts. I'm very disturbed by this."

Lee District representative Christian Braunlich also said he was concerned with the situation, especially after the board encouraged people not to testify.

SCHOOL BOARD chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill) said the previous lists were never voted on by the board and were only one possible budget future. Sully District representative Kathy Smith, for one, said she was willing to cut the planetariums if it meant at-risk students would get the help they needed through Project Excel.

"What concerns me is when board members make assumptions that things are off the table," Smith said. "I can let the planetariums go. … We need the kids in all-day kindergarten."

The planetariums will not be the only debate facing the School Board members Thursday when they have to officially cut $36.6 million, down from a one-time high of $78.3 million, from its proposed $1.6 billion budget.

Several board members expressed interest in trying to reduce the impact of eliminating the test fee to students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advance Placement (AP) programs.

A proposed $25 fee per test would save the school system $600,000. The schools began paying for the tests in the 1998-99 school year as a way to encourage students to take the more challenging courses. The approximately $110 test fee for the IB program and the $75 test fee for the AP program were seen as financial obstacles for some students and families.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS asked staff what the impact of capping the fees at $50, $75 and $100 would have on the budget, as well as not charging students on free and reduced-price lunch.

"Capping the fees at $50 would mean a loss of revenue of around $286,000. Capping the fees at $75 would mean a loss of revenue around $174,125 and capping the fees at $100 would mean a loss of revenue around $84,725," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent of instructional services.

Not charging the students on free and reduced-priced lunch equates to a loss of revenue of $25,450 said the school system's chief financial officer Charles Woodruff.

"I, for one, am concerned about the burden passed onto our families," Gibson said.

At-large School Board member Mychele Brickner spoke in favor of the fee, saying it was something the board needed to do. Thompson, while saying she was "disturbed to close off any opportunity by charging fees" said she did not know how else to cover the $2.1 million the school system spends on the two programs combined each year.

"I have no suggestions on how we begin to pay for this," Thompson said.

The School Board is expected to vote on a final budget Thursday, May 23, during its regular meeting at Jackson Middle School, 3020 Gallows Road in Falls Church, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The budget takes effect July 1.