Saying “a quality education is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity,” Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza introduced her planned $2.7 billion 2017 budget as one that makes investments in a teachers and staff while also making no cuts to staffing or programs.
“This is a very important time for our school system,’ Garza said before a packed house of educators, FCPS staff, school board members and the media at West Potomac High School on Thursday. “There are decisions to be made in the coming months that will have a long-lasting effect on our school system.”
Highlights of Garza’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget include step- and 1-percent market-scale salary adjustments for FCPS staff, as well as a $40 million investment in salaries that is part of a multi-year effort to invest in FCPS’ workforce.
Fairfax County has fallen behind neighboring jurisdictions such as Loudoun and Arlington Counties’ salaries and raises in recent years, which has resulted in a number of teachers leaving for other districts, FCPS says.
“This sends a signal that they are valued and want them to stay,” said Garza. “Closing this pay gap is critical to our success.”
The budget also proposes $10 million for hiring of new positions at the elementary level. This will allow the system to lower elementary class sizes to below 30 students. Class sizes have risen three times in the past decade, said Garza.
The Superintendent also wants $2 million to properly maintain and replace FCPS’ aging fleet of buses.
Garza received a sustained round of applause from the crowd when she said her plan includes no further cuts. That means language immersion, sports, Advanced Academics and other activities are all safe — provided the schools get a requested 4.8-percent increase over 2016 in Fairfax County and state funding.
The county transfer to the schools for 2016 was more than $2 billion. That amount was a $66.7 million increase over 2015.
Garza had been warning since last spring that the school system could face a deficit of more than $50 million and that many programs — as well as teacher raises — would have to be considered on the chopping block. A county budget task force comprised of employees and community members was organized to examine some of the cost-cutting measures, and residents were encouraged to offer suggestions via an online budget tool.
FCPS made $98 million in cuts in Fiscal Year 2015 and $65 million in FY 2016.
“The work of our budget task force illustrates the challenges we have ahead should we have to cut further,” says Garza. “The community has indicated loud and clear it wants no more cuts. Any of these next round of cuts could change the face of our school system.”
Garza will present the proposed budget to the FCPS School Board Thursday evening. The school board will learn in coming weeks how much money will be coming from the state and county and will spend the next few months discussing the budget before finalizing it in May.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said last month that the commonwealth should make a $1 billion investment in public education. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova said in December that fully funding schools is the board’s No. 1 priority on their legislative agenda for the 2016 General Assembly. She pointed out that the problem begins at the state level.
“The state has reduced its share [of funding all Virginia schools] by $1 billion,” she said. “Counties have tried to make up the difference. In Fairfax, we have increased about $200 million for schools.”
School Board Chair Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said Garza’s proposed budget is some needed good news. The school system is now spending $1,000 less in real dollars per student than it did eight years ago and nearly a half-billion in cuts have been made.
“We cannot sustain the greatness of our school system with sustained cuts,” said Hynes. “This is a budget that gives me hope. I hope everyone in the community will be behind us.”
Photo: FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza outlines 2017 budget at West Potomac High School/FCPS