Last week, I promised to discuss some of the budget recommendations put forth by Fairfax County Executive Anthony Griffin. This week, let’s look at the schools. Funding for the county’s excellent local school system is provided, in very large part, by what is called the “transfer” to schools.
More than half of the county’s General Fund goes directly to the School Board, and the county also funds services and programs that are school-related, but are not part of the $1.6 billion transfer. They include: Head Start, school health aides and nurses, school crossing guards, Comprehensive Services Act programs, and after-school programming in middle schools.
For families with children, supporting Fairfax County’s premier public schools may be the most important use of tax dollars. Certainly, our school system plays a vital and valuable role in maintaining the quality of life we enjoy in the county. The school system often is invoked as a primary reason why workers and corporations locate in the county. Fairfax County schools provide an environment where every child can succeed, and every graduate can be ready for the future. From emails and letters received in my office, many school advocates are concerned about class size, language immersion, music programs, and high school sports. Some parents are worried about overall funding, and advocate an increase in the tax rate from eight cents to 27 cents (remember, this is according to the mail I have received) in order to fully fund the schools’ request. The County Executive’s recommendation is for a five cent increase in the tax rate, from the current $1.04 to $1.09. Each penny on the tax rate is worth about $18.67 million, so a five cent increase would provide about $93 million additional in revenue for the county. Although his proposed budget is based on a tax rate of $1.09, Mr. Griffin recommended that the Board advertise a rate of $1.12, to provide some flexibility for the Board to make decisions on program demands. After some spirited discussion, the Board agreed to advertise a $1.12 rate at its meeting on Tuesday. The vote was not unanimous; two Republican members voted no. The Board may adopt a rate lower than the advertisement, but cannot adopt a rate above it. The proposed transfer of $1.6 billion, of 53.8 percent of the General Fund, remains the highest percentage of the budget in support of schools since FY 1981 (when the tax rate was $1.54).
Under Virginia law, the Board of Supervisors does not decide what school programs might be added or cut; the Board simply determines the amount of the transfer to the school system, and the allocation within the transfer amount is the responsibility of the elected School Board and the School Superintendent. As the economic downturn becomes a longer term reality, Fairfax County, like localities across the country, is in the difficult position of increased demands for service at the same time property values, on both the residential and commercial sides, continue to decrease. The county budget reflects the shared values of county residents, but the challenge for board members is to find the fair balance that can address the needs and requirements of our schools as well as the needs and requirements on the county side of the ledger. Of great concern is the “ripple” effect that cuts to programs might have on all services delivered by county and schools. The Board of Supervisors will hold its first full Budget Committee discussion about the proposed budget on March 16.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]