The Fairfax County School Board this week grappled with balancing its long-term goals against the realities of its short-term budget prospects.
The board unanimously approved the school system’s proposed $2.5 billion budget for fiscal 2015 at its meeting last Thursday.
Yet the chances of the budget keeping its current form are slim when it heads to the county government in April. Superintendent Karen Garza’s budget requests $60 million more in county funds than the Board of Supervisors has said it will provide.
So the school system turned Monday to first steps in creating a division-wide strategic plan with little firm idea of what the budget could look like for next year, let alone in 2020, the strategic plan’s end date.
With the financial piece up in the air, the school system is striving to be realistic in developing its future goals, said interim Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris in his presentation to the School Board on the strategic plan.
“The parameters of our plan have to be respectful of the current realities we are dealing with,” Parris said. “That includes the current budget situation and the implications that has.”
School Board members expressed hope that the strategic plan would provide a path to follow in future budget cycles.
“We realize that this year may be a painful budget situation,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee District). “Once the dust settles this year on where we are with our budget, moving forward I think it’s very important that we don’t have a scattershot approach.”
Right now, the budget is developed year to year, Kaufax said. Though some initiatives and goals carry over, it can be hard for the public to see the method behind the moving parts. If done correctly, according to Kaufax, a strategic plan will foster understanding between the school system, the Board of Supervisors and members of the public.
However, the school system already takes a similar approach in developing its Capital Improvement Program. The CIP looks ahead five years to provide a blueprint for the school system’s construction projects and renovations. The strategic plan will instead set goals for the administrative and academic framework.
Even with the CIP, though, the school system’s construction plans have fallen further behind each year. FCPS wants more facilities funding than the county is willing to provide, resulting in a backlog of renovations.
The school system aims to renovate schools at least every 25 years. Right now, five high schools all built around the same time in the 1960s still have yet to be fully renovated. Falls Church, one of these “legacy high schools,” only got on the schedule for renovations this year, with construction still at least five years away.
Still, school officials see the development of a strategic plan as an important move toward accountability. Whether it could help repair the School Board’s fraught relationship with the Board of Supervisors, though, is a question that will not be answered this year, with both already entrenched in the yearly budget battle.
The next step in that fight comes on March 4, when the supervisors will discuss next year’s advertised tax rate. That rate determines how many taxes the county can impose on property owners. These taxes in turn make up the funds used to run the government and schools.
More than half of the county’s funds each year go to the schools. This year, Garza’s budget requests a 5.7 percent increase in taxpayer dollars from the county, though the Board of Supervisors has promised an increase of just 2 percent.
County supervisors and School Board members alike have criticized this budget as overly optimistic. In the past five years, the school system has received an average increase in funding of just 1.1 percent.
If the Board of Supervisors sticks to its plan, the school system could be left to find millions of dollars in additional budget cuts.