Commentary: No Easy Answers to School Funding Challenge

Commentary: No Easy Answers to School Funding Challenge

After months of hard work and consideration of public feedback, the Board of Supervisors adopted its budget for 2017 late last month. Although the ink has yet to dry, we’ve already started looking towards 2018, when I expect education funding to continue to drive the discussion.

This year, the County once again stepped up to the plate -- giving our school system a total transfer of $2.1 billion dollars, an increase of $104 million from last year and the largest transfer increase Fairfax County Public Schools has received in a decade.

Why so large, you ask?

A majority of my colleagues and I felt this was the only way we could increase teacher salaries to remain competitive and ensure class sizes would be better controlled. An archaic funding formula from the Commonwealth means that Fairfax County loses money to other jurisdictions because of our wealth. To make up for this, the County has to fill the large gaps left by the state.

This puts us at a funding disadvantage compared to most other jurisdictions. The County’s only choices if we are to increase school funding is to increase real estate rates or make further cuts to services. We have already made numerous cuts over past years. There’s no easy answer.

Many of our local legislators in the General Assembly heard our cries for help and were able to get us an additional $17 million for education this year. Even with this year’s state increase, Virginia is still in the top ten states in income and bottom ten in education funding. A special thanks goes out to Senator George Barker and Delegates Vivian Watts and Mark Sickles for their hard work in Richmond. We appreciate their efforts, but we know we still have a long way to go.

After this grueling budget process, it has become even more apparent that Fairfax County needs revenue diversification and relief from Richmond. You have my commitment to continue working towards achieving that.

One option you’ll likely be hearing about in the months ahead is a meals tax. The state does give our Board the authority to put a referendum question on the ballot in November about such a tax in Fairfax County. This would be a 4 percent tax added onto prepared food in our area, the revenues of which would go towards the County budget. The Board alone cannot enact this; the voters must first decide by approving the referendum. I support asking the voters for their opinion on this.

A meals tax would help free up some additional revenue, but it is not the answer to our funding challenges. The aged state funding formula for education must be fixed. Whether you have a young one in our school system like I do or you’re a retiree hoping to free up dollars for County services such as libraries and parks, or for real estate tax relief, I’d encourage you to reach out to your state elected officials and ask them to continue the fight to bring more of our tax dollars back to Fairfax County. This impacts everyone.

Jeff McKay is the Chair of the Board’s Budget and Legislative Committees.