Fairfax County school officials this week gained wiggle room for budget negotiations.
The county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to advertise a 2-cent increase in the cap on the real estate tax rate. While supervisors said the actual tax rate, and accompanying revenue boost for the county, likely would not approach that ceiling, School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large) said that the advertised rate provides needed options for reconciling the clashing county and school budgets.
Though the actual real estate tax rate will not be adopted until the end of April, the county can only set a rate lower, not higher, than the one advertised. Keeping the advertised tax rate flat at last year’s amount, as proposed in the county budget, would have severely curtailed the possibilities.
County Executive Ed Long’s proposed budget provides $63.8 million less for schools than Superintendent Karen Garza asked for in her budget. Any increase in the tax rate could provide extra cash to help close the gap.
Velkoff, the chair of the School Board’s Budget Committee, said Tuesday’s vote signals that the Board of Supervisors has heard the community’s calls for a deeper dialogue on school and county funding.
“They gave us flexibility, which is all that people were asking for, really,” said Velkoff. “Now we can have a real conversation moving forward.”
Accusations have flown on both sides of the fraught budget process. County supervisors have called out school officials on overdramatizing the consequences of budget cuts, while school officials have taken umbrage to a perceived lack of concern on the county side.
The $2.5 billion school budget makes up more than half of the overall county budget. The proposed county budget for next year offers a 2 percent increase in funding for schools, while Garza’s budget requests a 5.7 percent increase.
The increase in advertised tax rate, while perhaps short of an olive branch, sets a more open tone heading into the weeks of discussion ahead.
“This at least demonstrates a commitment to the community,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees. “The supervisors have made themselves open to public comment, and they know they need more time to get input on the budget.”
Still, Adams was quick to note that even with an advertised increase, the Board of Supervisors had made no firm commitment to increased funds for schools, and that school officials and advocates would need to continue to make their voices heard.
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation for Teachers, agreed with Adams.
“This possibility for a 2-cent increase puts negotiations in a better place, but they haven’t committed to anything,” Greenburg said. “My advice to the school board: Stay strong and support Dr. Garza’s budget.”
If the Board of Supervisors did increase the real estate tax rate by a full two cents, from $1.085 per $100 of assessed value to $1.105, the move would potentially generate $43.8 million in extra revenue for the county that could go toward schools. But it would also add an average of $100 to annual tax bills.
Velkoff said the School Board will take a strong but reasonable approach to the continued budget talks to find a solution that is fair to the school system and taxpayers.
“We’re hearing from both sides, and the hard part is they’re all right,” Velkoff said. “We don’t want to be unreasonable, but I would hope there’s room to negotiate.”