Fairfax Schools grapple with budget deficit

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Fairfax County Public Schools is grappling with a $100 million budget deficit, half of which Superintendent Jack Dale hopes to close with a combination of reduction, redesigning and elimination of programs.

On top of the deficit the county is experiencing an unexpected increase in enrollment of 1,500 students.

Part of that burden may fall on the families and students, with proposals for $50 activity fees and a flat rate of $85 for PSAT, AP and IB tests. School board members nearly unanimously expressed a strong aversion to charging for tests, a practice that FCPS has previously enacted for only one year.

“The year we did fall back to paying only for students in poverty, the number of students who took those tests dropped in schools that had the most at-risk students,” Mason District representative Kaye Kory said.

That proposal, along with other cuts, creates a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged students, she said.

The deficit reflects a $23 million decrease in state funding and a county budget that relies on taxing real estate values that have plummeted in the past year.

“The county revenue projections are … maybe bleak would be the right term,” Dale said.

The state formula for calculating its contribution to counties, the Local Composite Index, is based on wealth, while the county’s contribution is dependent on real estate taxes, creating what Janie Strauss (Dranesville) called “an unfortunate disconnect.”

“It’s very frustrating when the state numbers are based on an increase in wealth when in fact we’re experiencing the opposite in the ability for the Board of Supervisors to collect revenue through real estate tax,” she said.

The budget would eliminate 521 positions from both schools and the central office without necessitating any layoffs, Dale stressed. Nearly 100 of those would be from a reduction in normal yearly hirings of instructional assistants.

“We will do this without any layoffs, we are doing this through natural attrition,” he said.

The elimination of five positions and hourly support that is the equivalent of 47 positions from the central office will save the school system $10 million, Dale said.

Those staffing reductions will mean an increase to the staffing ratio of half a student, Dale said, which would mean one less teacher in a school of 1,100 students. In smaller schools, the increased ratio could mean split classes in which two grade levels are combined. In high schools, classes that attract only 15 or so students would not be offered.

“The board knows we’ve been trying to reduce [split classes]; this will move us in the opposite direction,” Dale said.

A big piece of that proposal includes a complete redesign of the summer school program, which Dale told the school board is unanimously considered ineffective by school principals. A redesign is being planned over the next month and would be implemented over the next couple of years.

A redesign would decentralize the program and put greater involvement on the individual school staffs, “empowering principals and teachers to become accountable for these programs,” Dale said.

Beyond what he believes is an ineffective system, “the final point that hit me a lot are the middle school instructors saying they had students making the comment ‘I don’t worry about passing during the school year because I can take it during the summer,'” he said.

The “Gordian knot” that is transportation will weather some cuts as well, including FCPS-provided transportation for students who have been administratively placed in other schools as a result of discipline issues.

“They are going to have to get there on their own,” Dale said.

Students whose elementary school offers a GT program will no longer be provided transportation to schools that have a GT center.

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