Enrollment Drives Proposed $2.4B School Budget

Superintendent Jack Dale's plan puts 88 percent of budget toward teacher compensation

More than 700 Fairfax County Public Schools teaching positions would be added next year under Superintendent Jack Dale’s $2.4 billion budget proposal, a plan 9 percent larger than last year’s budget to accommodate the teaching needs of an estimated increase of nearly 4,000 more students.

The increase, which amounts to $202.3 million more than in fiscal year 2012, includes a 2 percent market-scale adjustment for all employees, along with step increase for eligible employees. It also includes a salary adjustment for custodial positions, the only group of school employees whose compensation is not at market-level.

Staff members eligible for both the adjustment and the step increase would see a 4.7 percent increase in pay next year, Dale said. Eighty-eight percent of the budget, which Dale presented to the Fairfax County School Board on Thursday night, is for employee compensation.

Though the last several budget cycles have brought teacher cuts, pay freezes and increased class sizes to Fairfax County Public Schools, Dale said this year’s plan returns some of what has been lost, including longer teacher contracts, the expansion of language programs and a small-scale version of summer school.

"The county is for the first time in several years projecting an increase in revenue so I think it is the beginning of a turnaround, but as they will say, it’s not a steep turnaround, it’s not a huge improvement, it’s not like it used to be,” Dale said.

But Dale’s plan is largely dependent on an 8.4 percent increase from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, whose transfer to the system has remained flat for the past several years despite similar increase requests. The requested transfer would fund about 71 percent of the schools' budget.

Dale said County Executive Anthony Griffin mentioned a 5 percent increase in conversations this fall.

"I don’t think it’s outlandish when you look at what our enrollment projections are … just covering enrollment increases alone is nine percent," Dale said. "I am required to put forward a budget that puts forward the needs of the school system and I don’t even think I’ve done that … I’m undercutting the needs of the school system. This basically covers the enrollment growth over the last five years that [the Board of Supervisors] hasn’t funded."

Board Chair Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said Thursday morning Dale's proposal  much more closely reflects the increase in enrollment — "and that’s critical."

FCPS will open two new schools over the next two years: a middle school at the South County High School site and a school at the former Lacey site.

"We’ve been increasing since the beginning of the recession … but our funding has not reflected increases in student enrollment," she said. "You get to the point where you simply cannot provide the quality of instruction the Board Of Supervisors supports, our citizens support, the business community supports without acknowledging the growth in student enrollment. You simply can’t do it."

Last year, the school board asked for a 3 percent transfer increase and did not receive it.

The absence of that increase, plus the unplanned cost to create state and federal loses in aid and , which pulled $3.5 million from this year’s beginning balance, forced the school board

Not only will teachers and other staff be dealing with more students as enrollment reaches 181,608 in fiscal year 2013 — projections estimate nearly 4,000 more students than last year and 15,000 more than in 2008 — the demands on them will also be greater.

Nearly half of the student growth has been for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners; about a third also receive free or reduced-price meals. While a significantly lower number of new students, 4.7 percent, have entered the system with special needs, those who do have them have increasingly difficult and more numerous challenges and needs, Dale said.

Until now, the system has added an average of 2,000 students a year, Dale said.

Programs for ESOL and Low-Income Students

Much of the budget’s other features addresses ESOL and low-income students: $5 million is pegged for extended learning time for students, reinstating summer school via a "jump start" program for elementary school students each August, Dale said, giving them two to three weeks of additional support before the school year begins. Summer school as the county traditionally knew it was eliminated in budget cuts two years ago, Dale said.

Of the 721 new positions, Dale's plan proposes adding 26 positions specifically to address large class sizes. ESOL classes need to be smaller, around 17 to 18 students, than regular classes, which he said average between 27 and 30 students.

Class sizes became a lightning rod issue in last fall’s school board election,  during which some candidates argued against the county’s need-based staffing formula.

Dale’s budget would continue to put teachers in schools based on that formula, but would also create a $2 million staffing reserve, which would fund additional positions in schools that don’t receive ESOL or poverty funding.

"We want to deal with this more strategically on a 'hot spot' basis, if you will, to make decisions school by school, classroom by classroom," Dale said. 

While the system should see more in state aid thanks to an increase in enrollment-based aid, a projected increase in sales tax revenue and an adjustment of the local composite index, which is a formula that determines a school division’s ability to pay education costs, Dale said several of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s budget proposals could negatively affect the school budget if passed in the General Assembly.

McDonnell's proposals, such as a higher Virginia Retirement System employer rate and the potential loss of $11.7 million in "competing funding" for support positions, have not been built into the school budget plan. "Competing funding" is typically given to jurisdictions with higher costs of living.

The school board will also deal with challenges of its own: With half of its 12 members new to their seats, the budget process will come with a steep learning curve but also support from staff and other members.

"Ask questions sooner rather than later," Strauss said.

The board will hold public hearings on the budget Jan. 30 and 31.

Patch will have updates to this story after the completion of Thursday night's board meeting.

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