Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech was not scheduled to release the school's proposed fiscal year 2004 budget until Jan. 9 and already it had to be amended.
Domenech walked into a scheduled press conference Thursday morning with a list of $19 million worth of cuts, that he said, in light of Gov. Mark Warner's (D) pledge not to cut education, was no longer needed. The superintendent said he was going to ask the cuts be reinstated when he presented the budget later that evening to the School Board.
"I am much more optimistic about the budget today then a few weeks ago," Domenech said.
The school system had been expecting a cut anywhere from $10 million to $30 million in state aid on top of the $46 million that was lost this current fiscal year. Instead, Warner's pledge gives the school system hope and puts the burden of fully funding the proposed $1.6 billion budget — an increase of 5.6 percent — squarely on the county Board of Supervisors' shoulders.
In February, the supervisors set a 7 percent transfer guideline, which represents the portion of the county's budget dedicated to schools, but revised that figure in late December reducing it to 5.3 percent. The proposed budget, with the anticipated state cuts factored in, included a 9 percent transfer, but dropped it to 7.9 percent when the state money was put back. The reduced transfer request equals about $24 million, but still puts the schools budget $31 million over the county's new guideline.
"Our Board of Supervisors, each year while giving us guidelines, have worked hard to give us a little more," said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), the finance and budget committee chair.
THE PROPOSED BUDGET, representing the smallest increase in five years, also hinges on the General Assembly's willingness to honor Warner’s pledge. Del. James Dillard (R-41), chairman of the House education committee, said that is not a bad presumption.
"He's [Warner] not going to cut basic aid. There have been some ancillary cuts in the department," Dillard said. "I do not foresee major cuts in education. There may be cuts in prolific programs. There are some thoughts we need a reserve fund for economic downturns to use for education.
"The fact of the matter is, we still under fund the Standards of Quality [SOQ] by a minimum of $580 million per year. Localities need to make that up and it puts pressure on the localities to raise real estate taxes."
The standards are the minimum requirements set by the state that all school systems must meet. The state provides 55 percent of the SOQ costs, but uses the local composite index, which measures the real-estate true values, taxable sales and "other" revenues and tends to be unfavorable to wealth localities, to distribute the funds. An audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, released last year, found the state's share of funding of the SOQs was nearly $500 million short for FY 2002. In addition, the audit said the state would need to add an additional $480 million in FY '03 and an estimated $580 million in FY '04 to meet its obligations.
Dillard said the sense he is getting from his colleagues, especially in this election year, is that no one is in a hurry to cut basic education funding.
In fact, he said, the Assembly will need to add $68 million to the education till because of the increase in enrollment figures, which are used in the funding formula. However, before school systems begin rejoicing, Dillard said the additional funds actually work out not to be a plus gain.
Domenech said that due to student membership, there was a $7.1 million increase in state sales tax revenue generated for the county schools.
Dillard has also proposed legislation that would increase the state’s funding of Northern Virginia schools by as much as 10 percent. The bill, as proposed, would require the state to pay at least 30 percent of the base educational costs regardless of the localities' ability to pay for schools. Currently, the state pays about 20 percent in high-income jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County. Dillard's bill, if passed, could mean an additional $39 million per year for the county schools. The revenue would be phased in over a two-year period, with the state share increasing by 5 percent each year. Under this measure, Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church would also be in line to receive more funding.
"AT THIS POINT, we're pleased at what will be happening with the budget," said Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association. "The ifs are going to be the problem. If the supervisors are going to go beyond what they said on the guideline. If the General Assembly does not cut back on Warner's budget, I think in the end, there won't be too many cuts."
Domenech's budget includes a $74.8 million increase in employee compensation and benefits, consisting of a cost of living and step increase totaling 4.6 percent, the addition of a Step 18 to the unified scale and a .5 percent contribution to the employees Virginia retirement plan. Under state law, once the school system begins contributing to the fund, it must fully pick-up the contribution within five years. This year's contribution will cost $5 million, but will mean more take-home pay for teachers.
"Our salary can be competitive with other jurisdictions, but our take-home pay is not," Domenech said. "Other than compensation, there is nothing new and that is the sad part of this budget."
Bedsides the retirement compensation, Domenech is also proposing increasing the teachers' work contract by two days, at a cost of $8.4 million. The additional days will be used as four half-days for in-service training over the summer months and will provide teachers with a little extra in their paychecks.