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Budget Focuses on Teacher Pay

Just two months before he leaves office, the outgoing superintendent proposes a $1.8 billion budget.

Just two months before he is set to leave his post as Superintendent of the Fairfax County school system, Daniel A. Domenech presented his $1.8 billion budget to the newly installed school board on Thursday night.

The nearly $2 million budget, an operating budget that is larger than six state budgets, represents a $136 million hike from last year’s figure, and it includes a 7.1 percent raise for most employees.

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, the superintendent described the FY2005 budget as reasonable and responsible.

"Some of my colleagues have been surprised that since this is the last budget that I am presenting that this would have been a wonderful opportunity for me to put together a wish-list and a humongous budget request that would request all the money in the world to fund all the things we haven’t got done," Domenech said. "I don’t want this budget to be seen as anything but a responsible budget that is in line with the reality of our time. It does request what we absolutely must have to operate, but it does not go into the wish-list category."

During the press conference, Domenech said the driving force behind the budget and the pay hike was his, and the board’s, determination to keep teacher salaries competitive with neighboring jurisdictions like Montgomery and Loudoun counties in order to keep Fairfax County schools operating at the level parents have come to expect, Domenech said. "We are making it a priority to stay competitive," the superintendent said.

ABOUT 88 PERCENT of the system’s 13,500 teachers will receive the full raise. Only the most experienced teachers will not be eligible for the entire 7.1 percent because a portion of the raise includes a 3.1 percent step increase for all teachers not already on the highest step.

The only significant new program that Domenech included in the budget is a $3 million autism program, in response to last year’s debate about PACE, the proposed charter school for students with autism. The PACE proposal was voted down by the board late last year.

Board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), the budget chairman, said he liked what he saw coming from the superintendent’s office.

"It’s a good start. The superintendent has tried to strike a balance between providing for our ability to attract and retain great teachers in a very competitive market," Gibson said. "He has tried to gauge where the discussion ought to be this year with the Board of Supervisors in terms of local funding. Frankly, I think one of our challenges will be to try and secure the level of funding from the state that will be necessary to fund this budget."

FAIRFAX COUNTY IS the primary source of revenue for the school budget. Under the terms of Domenech’s budget, the county would fund more than $1.3 billion, an increase of 9.7 percent or $120 million from last year’s budget. At this time, however, the county has only committed to 5.5 percent or $52 million less than Domenech’s budget calls for.

"We will be doing the annual budget dance with Fairfax County to try and get as much money as we can," the superintendent said. "History will show that the final figure will be somewhere in the middle of what the county offers and we ask for," Domenech said. "The county is under a great deal of pressure to lower property taxes."

Gibson said it is too early to tell how the gap between the county and the schools will be closed. "I don’t know if it is a bridgeable gap. Things will change between now and then. We won’t have the state numbers until after we have adopted our advertised budget. In addition, the federal numbers will change, too. So it may be that we will not have to bridge that gap, it might be another gap. Their numbers are going to change, too."

THE STATE AID, which is based on Gov. Mark Warner’s (D) proposed budget and tax reform package, accounts for $210.8 million. Additionally, another $121.8 million comes from the state sales tax. Overall, about 19 percent of the $1.8 billion budget comes from the states.

"There is not much hope at the state level that we will see any significant relief," Domenech said on Thursday. "Even the governor’s proposal has not received a very warm welcome [in Richmond]. If we get less than the governor is requesting then we are going to find ourselves in dire circumstances."

Gibson agreed that much might change in the coming months. "Take this budget with a grain of salt because it does depend heavily on what the General Assembly does," Gibson said.

The chairman of the education committee in the House of Delegates, Del. James Dillard (R-Fairfax), said it is too early to tell how much the state will ultimately shell out to localities. "The bottom line is, we don’t have a clue," Dillard said. "It’s going to be very difficult to say what is going to happen. … We’re facing at least a billion dollar shortfall and if we don’t get the billion dollars, we’ll have to make these kinds of cuts. Is the state going to provide the money they say they are going to provide? Nobody can answer that question right now."

Despite the No Child Left Behind mandates, the federal government only funds 2 percent, or $37.5 million, of the budget. "The federal government continues to under-fund its mandates," Gibson said. "We get about 2 percent of our budget from the feds and yet so much of what we do is driven by what is started in Washington and its put on the backs of county tax payers."

GIVEN THE COMPETITIVE marketplace in the Washington-metro area, Domenech made it clear that his priorities in putting together his seventh budget was focused on attracting and retaining the teachers in the county. "We know that we are not going to get the resources we need to do the job that we hope we could do," Domenech said. "The only significant factor that we need to affect to maintain the quality instruction we have come to expect is the staff."

At first glance, Barbara Allen, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said she was comfortable with the superintendent’s proposed budget. "Dr. Domenech was right on when he said that we have got to have the very best teachers in the front of the classroom. Instruction happens in the classroom," Allen said on Friday.

Despite the promised raise, Allen noted that the 7.1 percent increase does not move Fairfax County teachers much closer to the goal of highest paid in the region. "In the coming years, however, we are going to have to make some major leaps," she said.

TO OFFSET THE LOOMING shortfall, Domenech recommended $15.4 million in potential cuts, including $4 million in elementary instructional assistants, $2.9 million in high school staffing adjustments and nearly $1 million in special needs clerical support. The superintendent is proposing that some of these cuts be restored in the budget; however, if the state makes additional reductions in education funding or if the Board of Supervisors does not support a 9.7 percent transfer increase, the cuts may have to be made.

Allen expressed confidence any further cuts would not come at the expense of the teacher salaries. "I don’t think they will cut [salaries]," the FEA president said. "I hope I don’t have to eat my words. We have endorsed just about all those board members, and I think they know we feel very strongly about increasing salaries to the point that they should be."

NOT EVERYBODY is happy with the superintendent’s budget, especially the $15.4 million in possible cuts. "I think it is outrageous. It is a shame that the superintendent is attempting to maintain a balanced budget on the backs of those who can least afford it," said Judy Johnson, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. "He has recommended cutting out 182 elementary instructional assistants (IA) positions. This is going to hurt instruction and it is going to hurt children. He’s recommending cutting out 20 custodians and 31 clerical positions—all at the bottom of the scale. Where did he recommend cutting out any administrative positions? I didn’t see it, and that is the outrage."

Johnson said she had prepared for the worst, and was still disappointed when she first read the budget late last week. "They are talking about cutting out 61 high school teaching positions. The ones they want to cut are all of the positions that are closest to the school, including the custodians who keep the school clean, clerical positions who do paperwork and IAs who work directly with the children," Johnson said. "Why would parents support that over some bureaucrat walking around in a three-piece-suit or high heels and stockings?"

While Domenech acknowledged he would have liked to include money for projects like Project Excel or all-day kindergarten, he said the money is just not there right now.

"We are not addressing the needs of our increased population like we should, what we are banking on with this budget is that we will have the quality teachers in the classroom who will continue to make a significant difference. Otherwise, [our teachers] will be stolen from us by surrounding school systems and we can’t afford that."