Last week’s adoption of Fairfax County’s FY 2016 budget concluded a lengthy dialogue about priorities and revenues between the Board of Supervisors, the Fairfax County School Board, and the community at large. No one was especially happy about the difficult choices that were made to balance the county’s budget in a sluggish economic climate.
Nonetheless, the Board of Supervisors increased school funding by $66.7 million from the current year, for a total of more than $2.01 billion, accounting for 52.8 percent of the county’s General Fund.
A little history of school budget increases: in FY 1997, the school transfer, including debt service on school construction bonds, was $861.6 million. In FY 2016, the school transfer is $2.01 billion, a 156 percent increase. In FY 1997, the school population was about 147,000 students; today there are 187,000 students, about a 25 percent increase. Reinforcing that public education is the Board of Supervisors’ highest priority, this is the 17th out of the last 19 years that the Board of Supervisors increased school funding. The remaining 47.2 percent funds public safety, human services, parks and libraries, the sheriff and court system, public works, and related services. A full listing of budget items can be accessed at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb.
Local budgets are about balance, and collaboration. As in past years, the collaborative budget discussions between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board began last fall, when both boards met in public session with the County Executive and Superintendent to review revenue forecasts. It was clear then, as now, that the effects of sequestration and cutbacks in federal contracting, especially by the Department of Defense, are significant. Economic recovery in Northern Virginia is only slowly progressing. Even with improved housing values, the commercial side of revenue generation is stagnant, and that affects everyone’s bottom line.
Honest collaboration means that all groups at the table can get something, but no one gets everything they wanted. In fact, our collaborative approach identified some opportunities that both boards could work on together, now, and in the coming years. One such opportunity was advocating for more state funding for public education, as required by the state constitution, but which often is ignored in Richmond. Nearly every county in Virginia would benefit if the Commonwealth kept its promises. Fairfax County was successful in receiving $9.9 million more from the state this spring, which further reduced the gap identified by schools.
Decision-makers have a lot of information to digest before making judgments that may affect hundreds or thousands of people, and the results of those decisions sometimes generate passionate comments and criticisms. Some have characterized the Board’s action last week as being unconcerned about our students, our teachers, and our schools. Unconcerned? Hardly, and the consistent increases in funding demonstrates the Board’s steadfast support for our public schools, year in and year out.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.