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Schools Seek Funds for Teachers

School Board wants $39 million more than the county wants to give.

Supervisors started off their joint budget workshop with the School Board Monday by taking turns praising and thanking outgoing Superintendent Dan Domenech who will leave the post Friday. Then, once through with the formalities, they once again sharply criticized his budget request saying he had not abided by the spending guidelines set by the county.

"What do you do with those guidelines?" asked Board Chairman Gerry Connolly (D), referring to a Board of Supervisors policy that the School Board not ask for a larger increase than the county's overall revenue increase.

This year, county revenues are expected to increase 6.57 percent but Domenech and the School Board are asking the county for 9.7 percent increase in the amount of money the county sends to the schools.

Domenech told Connolly that he was not obligated to follow the board's guidelines but that state statute requires him to present a budget that accurately reflects the school system's needs.

"I could have come in to you this year with a transfer request of 15 percent easily," he said. "We're only curtailing ourselves as best as we can."

EVERY YEAR, the county's two main elected boards clash over the amount of the school budget transfer with school board members pointing to the schools' needs and supervisors retorting that they have to balance the schools' needs with those of every other agency and revenue realities. In the past, the final budget document reflected a compromise where the schools got less than they originally asked for but more than the board had originally agreed to give them. But that may be different this year, Connolly said.

"In the current climate where you've got a hemorrhaging state budget that will not continue to work," he said. "There has to be a fundamental rethinking on the school side."

County Executive Tony Griffin last week presented the Board of Supervisors with a budget that would direct $1.45 billion to the school system, roughly 53 percent of all county spending. Griffin's school transfer is about $39 million short of Domenech's request.

Domenech, it seems, was anticipating the supervisors' frustration over the gap in the two budgets and started his remarks by saying "I am here as the advocate for our children."

He then spent most of his time calling for a 7.1 percent salary increase for most teachers and a 5.6 percent raise for most other school staff. By contrast, the average county employee not in public safety will see a 4.1 percent pay raise next year.

Meanwhile, Domenech's budget for next year would not provide all-day Kindergarten in the county's schools nor would it reinstate intramural afterschool programs for Middle Schools which were cut two years ago. Statewide, about 92 percent of Virginia's school districts have all-day Kindergarten which allow working parents to leave their children at school during the workday. Domenech said his budget does not include intramural programs for Middle Schoolers even though he said such programs could help stem the rise of gang recruitment in the area.

Domenech's budget would also not affect the 11,000 students who are taught in 640 trailers countywide.

He acknowledged that the proposed pay raise for school employees was higher than that for county employees but said he was concerned about competition from neighboring jurisdictions with higher salaries.

Also, he told the board, "there have been times when your employees have gotten a higher increase in salary."

SUPERVISOR SHARON BULOVA (D-Braddock), who chairs the board's budget committee, pointed to other urgent needs the county must meet, including human service needs exacerbated by the recent economic downturn.

For instance, she said, supervisors often hear from parents of children with mental disabilities who graduate from high school but have nowhere to go.

"We have different programs that give children respite," she said. "That is a huge expense and we have been trying to get our arms around that."

At the same time, said County Chief Financial Officer, the downturn is causing longer waiting lists at the county's affordable health care clinics.

Jane Strauss (Dranesville), called for the two boards to get together more frequently, and to begin to prepare a joint planning document, something not undertaken in the past.

Newly elected School Board member Ilryong Moon agreed the School Board needs to be informed of the county's competing demands before members draw up their budget requests.

"When the criticism is about the School Board coming back with a budget request above the Board of Supervisors' guideline every year, we are not trying to be insensitive," he said.

Connolly told School Board members that, as elected officials, "you have some responsibility, as do we, to look at the whole picture."