15 Sep 2014
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Patch Instagram photo by cdcva
Patch Instagram photo by cdcva

Fairfax County, Schools Officials Struggle With Budget

“We’re just growing too much,” Superintendent Jack Dale said Tuesday as talks began between county supervisors and school board members.

Fairfax County, Schools Officials Struggle With Budget

Fairfax County is facing its own budget woes for Fiscal Year 2014: Property taxes could rise as much as 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, bumping the average homeowner's tax bill, and County Executive Ed Long has said raises for employees aren't likely.

But the county's struggles could also make Fairfax County Public Schools come up short on its own $ 2.5 billion advertised budget, officials said Tuesday as they met to discuss budget issues and priorities. It doesn't appear the county, which gives an annual transfer to the school board, can afford to give the board as much as it asked for this winter.

In order to close a $169 million shortfall and prepare for the still-unknown effects of sequestration, Long has proposed raising property taxes by 2 cents, from $1.075 per $100 of assessed value to $1.095, which is expected to bump the average homeowner’s tax bill by $262.

The county’s grim budget outlook also prevented Long from fulfilling the school board's request for a transfer increase of 5.5 percent, or $95 million, for a total of $1.78 billion in funding. Instead, Long only anticipates giving an increase of 2 percent, or $33.7 million.

Schools officials have said the increase isn’t nearly enough to handle the projected massive increases in enrollment, a point outgoing superintendent Jack Dale reiterated Tuesday.

“We’re just growing too much,” Dale told supervisors while detailing FCPS’ $2.5 billion Fiscal Year 2014 budget.

Dale's budget includes funding for 292.5 additional school positions to accommodate a 2,857 student increase in enrollment, which will bring total membership to 184,393 students.

The Dale said the smaller increase from the county – when coupled with other unavoidable expenditures – puts the schools budget about $45 million short of the actual advertised budget.

School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) stressed to her colleagues that the increased enrollment was a blessing.

“I would much rather be in a community that is expanding because we have more children than be Detroit,” she said. “I don’t want us to lose sight of that. These children are gift, not a burden.”

FCPS teachers would also get a 1 percent market rate adjustment in salaries under the current proposed budget.

With the increase, Fairfax would remain in the middle of the pack for average starting teachers’ salaries at $45,161.

But Fairfax is fourth from the bottom on a list of what jurisdictions pay teachers with master's degrees, giving an average of $58,303 a year compared to leader Arlington's $71,982. And it is second to last when comparing "maximum teacher salaries" for the area's most experienced teachers.

“This is the worst position we have been in with our salaries since I have been here,” said Dale, who retires as superintendent in June.

Dale also said there are major capitol improvement needs, including the renovation of schools to move some 11,500 students being taught in temporary learning spaces out of trailers and back into classrooms.

The number of students in those kinds of spaces rivals the enrollmenet of the entire Alexandria City school system, Dale said: Alexandria enrolls about  total enrollment is roughly 13,000.

County officials are soliticiting input from community members over the coming weeks about how best to amend the budget before it adopts a final plan April 30.

At that point, the school board will return to its own budget and adjust based on what it receives from the county.

“It doesn’t look like our challenges are going to end anytime soon,” Long said.

Editor Erica R. Hendry reported for this story.

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