Power point presentations often can be long and wordy, but they also can outline and explain difficult issues with more clarity than the usual narrative does. Plenty of power point graphs were on display at the joint Fairfax County Board of Supervisors/School Board meeting about the proposed FY 16 budget last Friday. Both the County Executive’s budget presentation and the School Superintendent’s budget presentation echoed the same concern: resources are scarce, while demands for services continue to grow.
Superintendent Karen Garza told both boards that the expenditure driver is student enrollment, which has increased by more than 13,000 students in the past six fiscal years. Special education costs are increasing, as are the number of students for whom English is not their native language. One of the most fascinating charts in her power point presentation was a comparison of Fairfax County’s student membership compared to the other 131 Virginia School Divisions. The sheer size of Fairfax County’s student enrollment makes other school divisions pale in comparison.
Fairfax County is the largest school division in the state, with 185,538 students registered, followed by Prince William (86,641 students) and Loudoun (73,394 students). However, Fairfax County’s free and reduced lunch student population, at 52,654, alone would rank as the sixth largest school division in the Commonwealth, behind Chesterfield County and just ahead of Henrico County. Fairfax County’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), at 32,103, would stand in ninth place, barely behind Norfolk and just ahead of Newport News. Our special education student population (25,697), standing alone, would rank 11th, behind Stafford County and ahead of Arlington County.
In terms of school size, Patrick County, in southwest Virginia, has 2,900 students overall; Fairfax County’s largest high school, Robinson Secondary, has 2,829 students. Fairfax County’s largest middle school, Glasgow in Mason District, has 1,645 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders; only five students fewer than all of Northampton County’s enrollment on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
All of the Commonwealth’s school divisions share a common problem: a lack of state funding for our schools. Every year, school divisions and counties request more money from the state to augment local taxpayer dollars and conform to the mandate of the Virginia Constitution that “The General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth, and shall seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” Former Fairfax County School Board member Chris Braunlich, in a recent column, noted that the time has come to look at how the Commonwealth funds education, since the system in use today was devised in 1972, when times were much different. He states “A system created in an age of mimeograph machines is ill-suited for the age of tablets, and the magnitude of change in four decades deserves a coherent and systemic examination.” A similar approach was advocated by members of the Virginia Association of Counties at its annual meeting in November. Local jurisdictions support the Constitutional mandate; the Commonwealth needs to do the same.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.