Sports

‘Pay to Play’ & Other Protesters Jam Fairfax Schools’ Budget Hearing

schoolboardprotestThe myriad pressures on the Fairfax County School Board were on color-coded display Tuesday night, when a range of pressure groups organized around the board’s public hearing on the school system’s proposed 2011 budget. There were plenty of parents and boosters on hand to protest the board’s proposed “pay to play” fees for student-athletes, but that faction was just one of several well-coordinated advocacy groups on hand to give the board an earful.

schoolboardprotest

Supporters of Project Excel at Hollin Meadows School demonstrate at Tuesday night’s Fairfax County School Board public hearing on the proposed 2011 budget, where they were joined by several other large and well-coordinated pressure groups.
Program & Pay Cuts Assailed by Noisy Groups

The myriad pressures on the Fairfax County School Board were on color-coded display Tuesday night, when a range of pressure groups organized around the board’s public hearing on the school system’s proposed 2011 budget. There were plenty of parents and boosters on hand to protest the board’s proposed “pay to play” fees for student-athletes, but that faction was just one of several well-coordinated advocacy groups on hand to give the board an earful.

Before the meeting, a precursor  to the board’s final adoption of a budget next Tuesday, 83 people signed up for their right to address the board for three minutes apiece, and their families and supporters filled the auditorium of the Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church with a crowd of well over 100 that frequently broke into loud applause as one speaker after another implored the board to better fund a dizzying array of programs.

The meeting was dominated by large clusters of like-minded individuals wearing red t-shirts reading “Salary Time Benefits” in support of Fairfax teachers’ salaries, waving blue and gold signs (in support of Project Excel at Hollin Meadows school), wearing black and standing in solidarity (Fairfax technology teachers), wearing matching blue t-shirts (in support of arts funding), etc.

A less immediately visible group of advocates – sports boosters – also flocked to the meeting. Representatives of the booster clubs of Woodson High, McLean High, Robinson High, J.E.B. Stuart High and a number of others asked the board to abandon its controversial “pay to play” policy of charging student-athletes $100 per sport starting next year, with several speakers branding the fee an “athletes’ tax” that would specifically disadvantage students from lower-income families.

“I don’t know all the issues surrounding this budget. There certainly seems to be plenty to go around,” noticed Lee High School booster Mark Williams. “But the reality of this (athletes’) tax is that it’s going to hurt the Lee community. And if it hurts the Lee community, it’s going to hurt our neighbors. It’s just not right.”

Reid Trautz, the president of the Falls Church High School boosters club said, “Yes, we know there’s a proposed fee waver” for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch. “But we’re also concerned about the kids who don’t qualify for the waiver, especially if there are multiple kids in their homes.”

J.E.B. Stuart Booster Club President Maria Haynes echoed his sentiments. “What about students just slightly above the poverty level?,” she asked. “For some students the new fees will be upwards of $700. Fairfax County is putting up barriers and further separating the haves and the have-nots. Our high school student-athletes deserve our support, not a fee.”

As for the teacher groups, Fairfax Education Association President Michael Hairston told the News-Press that they were in attendance “to express our concern over this budget and the lack of a salary increase for our teachers. And some of the new initiatives really concern us, particularly priority schools. Our concern is that teachers are so overwhelmed by all this new work that there’s no time in the day to actually teach. We just feel overwhelmed, undervalued and under-appreciated. These new initiatives seem to be getting priority over the work that we do. That’s what we’re trying to express: Try and put people first, over these new programs that have not been vetted by the community and the teachers.”

For all the perspectives expressed at the meeting – and speakers stressed everything from the importance of Japanese immersion to the importance of “bus service for Level Four centers” – the teachers were in step with the boosters about “pay to play.”

“While they’ve said they will not charge the neediest students a fee, I’m worried about the students who may not quite qualify for waivers. What about them? Are they going to fall through the cracks? A lot of kids will not be able to participate,” stated Hairston.

Defenders of the School Board budget cite the wider economic recession that has wreaked havoc with the budgets of states and localities, particularly those that by law must have balanced budgets, for the proposed program cuts and new fees.

However, it was noted that Fairfax County limited its overall tax rate increase to five cents, far less than other jurisdictions in the region (the City of Falls Church’s increase was 17 cents, for example). With the new tax rate adopted by the County Board of Supervisors, average real estate tax payments actually went down for county residents, with the consequences being the loss of services, the layoffs of county employees, and the cuts that were being protested at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting.