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School Budget Questions Turn Ugly

Any hope of a peaceful budget process for the Fairfax County Public Schools has been lost with a few strokes of a pen.

Through a series of letters, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which represents 3,200 employees, has raised questions over the size of the school-system's administration. The claims of the federation have largely been dismissed as being incorrect and misconstrued by school-system officials.

The debate between the two sides came to a head last week, with Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech questioning the federation's future affiliation with the school system and the federation's president, Judy Johnson, comparing Domenech to a certain cable-television mob boss.

"The important thing for everyone to know is that Daniel Domenech has raised the issue to First Amendment rights," said Johnson.

AT ISSUE is $20 million that the federation claims is spent on non-school-based personnel. The federation officials said, based on the school-system's budget, the administration has jumped from 466 positions in 1997-98 to 671 in 2001-02. The group specifically singles out the increase in the leadership team, directors and coordinators, instructional specialists, business specialists and technical specialist, all of which the federation calls "central administrative staff." They said that while the administration has been growing, so has the school system's student-to-teacher ratio, making it the highest in the metropolitan area. In addition, county teachers get paid $9,000 less than Montgomery County teachers, the federation said.

School-system officials have said the positions questioned are not administration and in many cases reflect reclassification of jobs, not increased personnel. The positions are listed in the budget on a page labeled "Authorized Positions, School-Based vs. Nonschool-Based," and does not single any out as administrative.

"Less than 1 percent is non-schooled-based administrators," said Deirdra McLaughlin, the school-system budget services director. "That's the lowest in the area."

She said it is not surprising the school system has increased staff by 1,872.5 positions over the past five years, of which she said 1,825.2 positions are school-based personnel, because the number of students has increased as has the amount of services the students require, especially when it comes to students with disabilities.

MANY OF THE JUMPS in personnel reflected in the budget, McLaughlin said, are a reflection of the school system changing most of its classifications in 1998 and again to a smaller extent in 2001 due to changes in computer systems and software. She said for example, an assistant coordinator-maintenance was at one time classified as a technician and is now a business specialist.

"The bottom line is the increase is 47.3 positions," McLaughlin said.

Charles Woodruff, chief financial officer, said the school-system's computer software automatically changes the reclassifications in all of the budget historical data, which could cause some confusion because actual totals can appear to change from one year to the next as a result.

Woodruff also said that positions not listed in the operating fund but rather in one the school system's other nine funds, can not be moved from fund to fund by law.

"Whatever fund the position was approved for is where it goes," Woodruff said. The decision as to which fund a position belongs is done in consultation with the school-system's outside audit company when needed.

In all, there are roughly 21,003.6 positions to be funded by the operating fund in the proposed fiscal year 2004 and about 550.1 positions to be funded through the remaining funds: food and nutrition; grants and self-supporting programs; adult education; debt service, which actually has no personnel; school construction; insurance; health and flexibility benefits; central procurement; and the retirement fund.

However, some operating funds are transferred into special revenue funds within the nine other funds. For example, according to the budget documents — detailed under grants and self-supporting programs fund in the section for special revenue funds — “the summer school and Standards of Learning remediation program receives operating fund support of $13.7 million.”

The budget documents do not specify if any of the transferred money is used for personnel.

"The non-school-based positions and numbers came from the schools' budget. If they are not administration, then the school system needs to publicly define what they are," Johnson said.

IN AN OPEN LETTER distributed at the School Board's Feb. 13 meeting, Domenech responded to the federation on a point-by-point basis. However, it is a cover letter that accompanied the mailed version of the open letter, and which was not distributed to the public, that has seemed to widen the division between the two sides.

In the cover letter Domenech writes, in part: "I have heard from many teachers, parents and staff members who have expressed their outrage about the content and method of distributing your materials. I, too, have concern that your distortion of the truth could jeopardize the school system's ability to receive the necessary funding to provide the quality of programs our students need to be successful and the salary increases our employees so deserve.

"My concern is of such magnitude that I have asked my staff to look at options regarding your organization's status with Fairfax County Public Schools to include suspension of the dues deduction privilege that we currently grant your organization."

Domenech said the federation is not being responsible. For example, he said when the federation says Fairfax County teachers are paid less than Montgomery County teachers, he said it fails to point out the Montgomery teachers work a longer school year and have a longer school day. However, he called the federation's claims regarding staff growth, its "most egregious" misrepresentation.

"If you look at the sheet they add the word administrative and not all those positions are administrative," Domenech said. "Then they use the data to reach conclusions that are wrong. Even if I fire every administrator in Fairfax County, we would not have the $14 million required to reduce class size by one student or the money to raise salaries. And they know that."

As for the federation's future with the school system, Domenech said, "The school system deducts the dues from employees' paychecks and pays the all the associations as a courtesy." He said even if the school-system stops collecting the dues on the federation's behalf, he would continue to meet with its leadership to discuss issues of concern.

In Virginia, it is illegal for educational employees to form unions, however, Fairfax County has several independent employee associations for school-system personnel.

"What Daniel Domenech is doing is trying to intimidate the schools staff about schools issues," Johnson said. "He sends an open letter and one dated Feb. 14, threatening to suspend our dues deduction privilege … it is a threat. If we question him, he threatens to take something away from us."

In his letters, Domenech offered to schedule a meting with the federation leadership, which Johnson said the federation wants to be held in public.

"The public has a right to weigh in," Johnson said. "He has to be held accountable."

As of early this week, no such meeting had been scheduled.