Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Karen Garza drew a decidedly mixed reaction last month when presenting a $2.5 billion draft budget for fiscal 2015. On one hand, Garza called for across-the-board raises for talented teachers and staff who might be tempted to bolt for “greener” pastures. On the other, she proposed a number of painful cuts that would result in savings of about $96 million — a figure that included the elimination of 731 staff positions.
“We can’t help but affect our staffing ratios in order to make the reductions we need to make,” said Garza. “We are keenly aware of the effect that some of these cuts will have throughout our system.”
That’s the cost of running a competitive school system in lean budget times. And, with student enrollment figures rising and potential revenue streams declining, there’s precious little relief in sight. Fairfax County’s growth-related challenges are made even more daunting by the fact that our entire educational system is being transformed by what is known as 21st Century Learning.
The integration of new technologies is moving into every aspect of education. Multi-million dollar learning management systems are now required to manage the connected pieces of a complex educational ecosystem.
For teachers, the change is transformational. Vital skills are required to develop young minds for a connected, always-on society. Technologies in the classroom and at home can be confusing to manage, but the confusion is worth it; our children have unprecedented access to knowledge and learning as they move through all aspects of our culture. They have a native instinct for the devices, programs and apps that are so much a part of their lives, as well as ours.
Sadly, the debate over the school budget impacts one of our most valuable resources, teachers. They are the collateral damage of a pay “sag” that forces them to seek better paying jobs in neighboring states and counties.
Dr. Garza, in her first go-round as a freshly minted superintendent, has a difficult task on her hands. Fortunately, she appears to have enough energy, determination and moxie to carry things across the finish line.
The next step comes on Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors discusses 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 Garza’s 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.
In all likelihood, that probably translates to less money for teachers, a handful of program cuts and further delays in outfitting many Fairfax County classrooms with technology that should no longer be viewed as optional.
We certainly support efficiency and cost-management. If there is fat in the budget, take it out. But don’t put it on the backs of teachers.
As for technology, enlightened managers use it to crush costs, not raise them. Society uses it to expand knowledge, not limit it.
The decision to fund our schools shouldn’t be a political one, but one that revolves around teaching and learning. Let’s build a lesson plan around this real-life proposition: How do we, as responsible citizens, exercise clear-sighted judgment that balances spending with an invaluable asset in our community?
In answering that question, we should not have to explain to our children why a talented, caring teacher has to look elsewhere for a job. Or why students who are hungry to learn settle for pencils and paper in their classrooms when more engaging educational tools are everywhere around them.
Good teachers cost money. So does good technology. Both are prudent investments for our schools. In the long run, both raise the value of education by providing a substantial return-on-investment: a capable generation empowered to solve any problem, a generation that can apply the skills, talents and capabilities they acquire in their home county to make their lives better.
Dr. Garza’s budget doesn’t appear out of line. In return, supervisors would be wise to pay for it — even if that requires a 2- or 3-cent bump in the tax rate.