There was little indication that county and school leadership will reach common ground on budget issues this year as the two boards met Tuesday.
Fairfax County Public Schools officials are trying to convince the Board of Supervisors to increase the county’s real estate tax rate in order to provide additional funding to the public school system.
County Executive Ed Long’s proposed budget includes a 2 percent increase in schools funding, but that proposal is about $64 million short of what the School Board is asking for.
Even with an anticipated $27 million to $30 million increase in state funding, the school system needs the additional funds just to cover increased pension costs and growth in student enrollment, as well as fixing the structural deficit in the schools’ budget, said Superintendent Karen Garza.
Board members tried to hammer home that there are constraints on the county pocketbook while emphasizing the additional support the county provides for the school system, in addition to the cash transfer to fund school operations.
“All of our revenues are flat except our residential [real estate] assessments are up. This really sets the stage for our challenge,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D-At large).
The Board of Supervisors advertised a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, to $1.105 per $100 of assessed value, allowing them to set the tax rate at that level or lower when they adopt the budget at the end of April. However, at the time of that vote, several supervisors indicated their reluctance to reach those heights.
Long’s proposed budget represents an average tax bill increase of about $330, and each penny increase in the tax rate adds another $50 to the average tax bill.
Illustrating the differences in perspective, members of the Fairfax County School Board and Board of Supervisors quibbled over facts and figures, such as whether county homeowners would be paying more or less in real estate taxes this year than in fiscal 2009, before the housing market crashed.
Under County Executive Ed Long’s proposed budget, homeowners would pay an average of $5,402 in real estate taxes in fiscal 2015, compared to $4,831 in fiscal 2009.
However, School Board member Megan McLaughlin said, adjusted for inflation the 2009 tax amount would be a bit higher than today’s proposed tax bill.
“Let’s also be mindful that we live in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States,” McLaughlin said, prompting some county supervisors to cite examples of middle class communities in their districts that have seen higher-than-average increases in the assessed values of their homes, and therefore their tax bills, this year.
“When I talk to taxpayers, they often say their relative ability to pay their tax bill has not kept pace with inflation,” said Kevin Greenlief, director of the Department of Tax Administration. “They basically say they’re treading water.”
Garza recognized different perspectives of the two boards in looking at the proposed school budget. Where school officials see a budget cut to the bone, some of their county counterparts see fat left to trim.
“You can look at numbers any which way, and each way you are going to get a different interpretation,” Garza said.
One area of contention is the school system’s salary lapse rate, or the savings resulting from position turnover during the year. Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said he believes the school system currently underestimates these funds, which would give more room in the school budget.
Herrity also called on Garza to look at the proposed salary increase for school employees, which comes with a pricetag of $41 million. That salary bump covers 95 percent of all school employees, while Herrity proposed limiting it to teachers.
“We have a lot of work to do on both sides of the aisle,” Herrity said. “This really does need to be a partnership as we move forward to get this resolved.”
Still, Garza continued to hammer home to the supervisors that the school system’s request for $98.1 million more from the county, a 5.7 percent increase compared to last year, should not be seen as gamesmanship.
“If we had been playing business as usual, we would have come to you with a request for at least an 8 percent transfer increase,” Garza said. “At least. But we knew that any hope of developing a budget was to share in the solution with you.”