Fairfax superintendent Karen Garza wants the county to provide more funding to schools, but the county’s Board of Supervisors is not buying in.
Garza raised her voice while defending her $2.5 billion proposed budget for next school year in a budget work session on Monday. The budget includes $98.1 million more from the county than last year, a 5.7 percent increase.
“Do we think 5.7 percent is asking too much? Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s enough,” Garza said. “If we don’t get that increase, it would be a travesty.”
The $98.1 million increase is nearly triple the $34.3 million bump the Board of Supervisors had pledged for schools. County supervisors plan to hold firm, according Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), necessitating additional cuts from Garza and the School Board.
“Are those cuts going to have an impact? Yes. Are they going to be devastating? No,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock). “And that kind of language coming from the school side is not helpful.”
Garza’s proposed budget already includes $96.5 million in reductions by the school system, the largest portion coming from the elimination of more than 700 positions. The cuts help offset enrollment growth and increases in retirement and health insurance costs, as well as a proposed $41 million raise for most employees.
However, belt-tightening cannot cover all the costs, according to Garza, particularly those related to enrollment growth. The student population is expected to grow by more than 3,000 students.
“I’m very concerned with where we are,” Garza said. “This is a very real, real request. I think a 5.7 percent increase is reasonable, and I think our community should be very disappointed if we don’t get it.“
The Board of Supervisors ultimately controls how much taxpayer money the School Board receives annually. If the board does not approve the 5.7 percent funding increase and instead sticks with the promised $34.3 million, 2 percent hike, the school system will have a hole of more than $60 million to fill with additional budget cuts.
The school system’s current budget does not include a $27 million increase in state aid included in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget, Cook pointed out. If that money comes through, the school system would have only a $37 million gap to overcome.
While Garza acknowledged the potential state funds, she would rather use that money to recover positions and programs already slated for the chopping block.
“The school officials want to spend that money on other things,” Cook said. “They can’t. To be blunt, they just can’t.”
At Monday’s work session with Garza, several School Board members also questioned whether the budget cuts went far enough. Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) questioned pay raises for administrators and the the safeguarding of instructional coaches.
“I want to be supportive of our school system, but I’m looking at this budget, and we still have stuff that we could do without,” said Megan McLaughlin (Braddock). “Do I publicly start saying, ‘Actually, we don’t need 5.7 percent?’”
School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said the school system’s financial situation is worse now than in the past but still found the budget overly optimistic.
“I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere near 5.7 percent,” said Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield). “I think it’s on a wing and a prayer that we’re looking at 5.7 percent.”
However, other School Board members defended Garza’s proposal. Chairman Ilryong Moon (At-large) said county supervisors the Board of Supervisors “lack a fundamental understanding” of the impact of enrollment and demographic change on the school budget.
“I cannot believe that the superintendent would have proposed with a 5.7 percent transfer request had she not believed that it was a reasonable request,” Moon said.