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To meet a new state requirement on public school employee retirement contributions, the Fairfax County School Board was forced to eliminate plans to expand learning programs within its 2012-13 school year budget.

Approved May 24, the $2.4 billion schools budget includes $48 million to accommodate a projected enrollment increase of 4,000 students — bringing the total to 181,536 next school year. The budget also includes a 1.25 percent market-scale adjustment in salary and a 2 percent salary increase for employees, which was created to help offset the state-mandated increase in employee contributions to the Virginia Retirement System — a change which takes effect under fiscal 2013.

About 80 percent of the school system’s 23,000 employees are enrolled in the VRS. Under changes to that retirement system, which were made by state legislators this year, public school employees participating in the fund will be required to pay a 5 percent employee contribution. That contribution currently is paid by local school systems.

School Board members were considering several scenarios on how to fund the VRS shift, whether all at once or during a five-year period. Full implementation would cost $51.4 million under the fiscal 2013 budget.

School Board members were divided on how best to fund the VRS, voting seven to five on a compromise between fully funding the program next year and phasing it in during the course of five.

“It is within our budget parameters. It doesn’t break the bank. And at the same time it does give our employees a real, in the pocket 2.2 percent … in their paychecks, which I think is certainly an important point,” said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).

Those opposed to the compromise said they were concerned about from where future funding to pay for VRS would come.

“Some of us think our employees will be best served in the long run by committing as many resources as possible to the VRS shift now, to free up more money in the future. Whereas others want to postpone that shift to give our employees more money now [in the form of raises],” said School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large). “By pushing our VRS payments off to future years, we will incur increased administrative costs and have less money to pay our employees in those future years. I find it disappointing that I will be part of a system that pushes institutional costs out into the future instead of dealing with them when we have adequate funding to do so, which we do this year.”

Other school board members worried that fully funding VRS this year would artificially elevate employee salaries, causing a greater increase to funding needs later.

“I haven’t heard anyone explain how this isn’t going to grow our salary base,” said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District). “The more you do VRS this year, versus phasing it in over five years, your base salaries of these 22,000 employees is going to be higher next year than if we phase it in over five years.”

School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon District) said although he understands the pros of implementing the VRS fully now, he worried about the message it would send to employees — who would not receive market scale adjustments to their salaries this coming school year.

The budget also included the elimination of the $100 per-sport student athletic fees, a campaign promise made by several School Board members during the past election. This elimination resulted in a revenue reduction of $1.7 million.

Lost from the budget were plans to expand programs such as extended learning time for students ($7.5 million); increased staff to reduce large class sizes ($2.5 million); and $900,000 to add foreign language programs at eight additional elementary schools and implement Foreign Language Immersion programs in two additional schools. However, the budget included $600,000 to add School Board office staff; $500,000 to support the high school band programs; and $100,000 to expand the Pathways to the Baccalaureate program, which represents a partnership between the school system, Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University.

For information on the school system fiscal 2013 budget, visit www.fcps.edu/news/fy2013.shtml

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com