Overview of $2.2 Billion Budget Plan Held at Forum in Falls Church
Board members of the massive Fairfax County School System, 11th largest in the U.S. with a $2.2 billion operating budget serving 177,416 students in 196 schools and centers, made a major revaluation of its priorities, the schools’ chief financial officer Susan Quinn said Saturday.
Speaking to three dozen school activists and public officials at a forum on the upcoming Fairfax County school budget deliberations in the Little Theatre at Falls Church High School Saturday morning, Quinn said that the biggest shift in the thinking of the board dealt with the matter of teacher and staff compensation.
“We rated our priorities on a scale of one to 10,” she told the assembled. “The one change we made was to adjust the priority for salaries and benefits from ‘7’ to ‘9,’” she reported. That resulted in building an across-the-board 2 percent salary hike, but a “step” for all those eligible, into the county schools’ budget.
The move was made to keep pace with similar salary hikes in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions as competition to retain or hire the best teachers becomes a top priority. An exception is the school system in the City of Falls Church, where the school board built in no salary increase, and only a half-step, after the superintendent had recommended no increases of any kind.
According to Quinn, Fairfax offers the second highest average salary for starting teachers at $44,000 (second to Prince George’s County in Maryland and ahead of Falls Church, which is fourth behind Arlington at $43,720). But Fairfax is behind Falls Church in “Step 9” salaries and maximum teacher salaries, where Arlington leads in both categories.
As with surrounding jurisdictions, Fairfax is coping in a tough economic environment with rising enrollment. Since 2007, Quinn reported, an additional 13,121 students have joined the Fairfax system, with 2,120 projected for next year alone.
Still, severe budget constraints are preventing the county from restoring its summer school program, reducing class sizes or eliminating fees for participation in athletics and for taking International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams.
In the last three years, in addition to these, the county schools have implemented contract length reductions, custodial and central support reductions, elimination of tuition reimbursement and National Board Certified Teacher stipends, the closing of the Pimmit Alternative High School, two years of frozen salaries, a class size increase an average of one student per teacher, clerical and AP reductions, reductions to Guidance and Career Services, high school academies, library media, special education and adapted physical education, the elimination of time-out rooms, and preschool 1A reductions.
In the last three years, more than $465 million in reductions and cost avoidances have been absorbed, including the elimination of over 1,400 positions and the raising of over $4 million in increased revenues from various fees.
Still, the Fairfax School Board has maintained as its top priorities, with ’10s’ on the one-to-10 scale, things such as a safe and secure environment, resources for students not meeting academic expectations, relationships with community-parent liaisons, and quality academic programs in core disciplines.
Other academic programs were rated as follows: fine arts 9, practical arts 8, two languages 6, technology 4, and countries and cultures of the world 4.
Other overall priorities scoring a ‘9’ included maintaining support for effective classroom teaching and learning, emphasizing K-3 (early investment) and maintaining competitive salaries and benefits.
Near the bottom of the list is “supporting lifelong learning” with athletics and extracurricular activity. That gets a ‘4’ out of ’10.’
Fairfax School Superintendent Jack Dale was also present on the podium Saturday, along with School Board chair Kathy Smith and the School Board’s budget liaison person, Tessie Wilson. Other school board members and Providence District Supervisor John Foust were present in the audience, as well Owen Shortt, president of the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP, and Arthur Ferguson of the Fairfax Taxpayers Alliance.
Dale conceded that as tough as things remain for the county’s school budget, the real crunch won’t come until next year, when massive obligations toward the Virginia Retirement Fund will come due. The county has attempted to brace for this by setting aside some funds in advance, he said.