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Difficult Choices for Schools

New superintendent says School Board needs to brace for $100 million worth of cuts.

Members of the Fairfax County School Board meet for a budget work session this week in Merrifield.

Members of the Fairfax County School Board meet for a budget work session this week in Merrifield. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

On the Menu

  • $19.5 million: increase student-to-teacher ratio by one student in general education
  • $14.6 million: reduce allocations to schools for needs-based staffing
  • $10.2 million: reduce school counselors
  • $9.1 million: reduce all employees contract length by one day
  • $7.9 million: furlough all employees for one day
  • $6.3 million: reduce all teacher pay scale employees contract length by one day
  • $6.3 million: eliminate instructional assistants in Kindergarten classes
  • $5.5 million: eliminate foreign language in elementary schools
  • $4.5 million: have students pay for AP and IB tests
  • $4.3 million: eliminate funding for Priority Schools Initiative
  • $3.9 million: increase student-to-teacher ratio by one student in special education
  • $3 million: eliminate additional staffing for middle and high school work awareness and transition
  • $2 million: reduce funding for computer replacement
  • $1.8 million: increase class size for advanced academic centers
  • $1.8 million: eliminate 22 instructional coaches
  • $1.8 million: charge $100 per student athletic fee
  • $1.7 million: increase class size for preschool autism classes
  • $1.7 million: increase class size for English Speakers of Other Languages classes
  • $1.7 million: reduce allocation for custodial positions
  • $1.5 million: reduce allocation of technology specialists
  • $1.1 million: reduce allocation of clerical positions to elementary schools
  • $900,000 reduce funding for the project management oversight committee
  • $500,000: reduce allocation of librarian positions
  • $500,000: reduce contract length for social workers
  • $300,000: eliminate small school staffing formula
  • $200,000: reduce transfer to Adult and Community Education
  • $200,000: increase community use fees for school facilities

— Should class sizes be increased? Should school employees be laid off? Should students have to pay to take Advanced Placement and International Baccalauresate tests?

These are some of the difficult choices before members of the Fairfax County School Board for fiscal year 2015. This week, Superintendent Karen Garza laid out about 50 potential spending items that could be on the chopping block. School officials need to close a $140 million shortfall. That means even if the Board of Supervisors and the General Assembly kick in more money, School Board members are going to need to make significant cuts.

"I think it's still yet to be determined what that number is, although we know it's going to be extraordinarily high," Garza told School Board members during a work session Monday. "I think it's going to be at least $100 million."

Garza, who joined the school system over the summer, was quick to point out that she was not making any recommendations. She described the list as "menu items" that School Board members could order to balance the books. Options on the table include everything from increasing class size and laying off employees to creating a new athletic fee and eliminating a foreign language program in elementary schools. Avoiding those cuts could mean Fairfax County homeowners are hit with a higher tax bill.

"That's the Board of Supervisors' responsibility," said Dan Storck, School Board member who represents the Mount Vernon District. "If we had the ability to do that on the School Board, I would be happy to make those decisions and explain them to the public."

FISCAL YEAR 2015 is months away, and Garza will not present her proposed budget until early next year. Last year, budget officials projected a shortfall of $61.7 million. This year, the shortfall is more than twice that amount, created by lack of revenue from the state and the lack of funds from the Virginia Retirement System reserve fund. That means school officials are about to confront a crunch that could mean very difficult choices for School Board members at a time when enrollment is spiking. School officials estimate that the county has added about 3,000 students every year for the last five years.

"Our enrollment is increasing, and the cost of doing business is increasing," said Susan Quinn, chief financial officer. "So just based on our projected revenue shortfall and our required expenditures, we are facing $140.7 million going into 2015 before any transfer increase or any compensation increase for employees."

Half of the schools that failed to meet state accreditation standards are in Mount Vernon, where science scores were the reason most of the schools failed to meet the cut. Some have advocated that should prompt school officials to restore an old planetarium at Carl Sandburg Middle School to be restored. But Storck says the county simply does not have the $257,000 needed to make that happen, especially now that school officials are trying to close a $140 million shortfall.

"Our middle school science curriculum does not include a planetarium and really would not involve a planetarium," said Storck. "I think we have greater challenges than planetarium spending at this point in time, particularly at Sandburg."

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY public school system is one of the largest in the country, an enterprise with almost 200 schools and more than 180,000 students. The economy of scale means that the system has one of the lowest costs per pupil in the region, coming in at $13,427 for each individual student in the system. But the size and scale of the system also comes with its own challenges, one that the new superintendent is coming to recognize now that she's putting together her first budget.

"We are a very efficient system. That's the good news," said Garza. "The bad news is that means we don't have a lot of places to cut that won't hurt. They're all going to hurt, and none of them will we find pleasant."