School Board chairman Ilryong Moon (At-large) pushed the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to provide more money to schools.
The school system requested a 5.7 percent increase in county funding from last year, equal to $98 million, but the county government in its budget plans has promised only a 2 percent increase, or $34 million. Without a bigger commitment, Moon said, the quality of education will suffer.
Moon got the first last word on next year’s county budget, kicking off three days’ worth of public hearings before the supervisors, who will finalize the budget in the next two weeks. Each session Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday featured testimony from school advocates, all reflecting Moon’s initial message.
“It’s easy to say that education is a top priority, which I have repeatedly heard from you,” Moon said. “But where the rubber meets the road is the financial commitment you are willing to provide to our students and teachers.”
The county budget will determine the fate of the school system’s budget. Tax dollars from the county make up 70 percent of the school system’s $2.5 billion budget. If the county sticks with its initial plan for school funding, the school system will be left with a $64 million gap to fill.
The two sides have been at a disconnect over the funding allocation since the budget process began, continuing a long-standing quarrel.
After hearing Moon’s presentation, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), following her script, urged school officials to evaluate where their money is going. She pointed to cuts to summer school and alternative education programs as possible examples of misplaced priorities.
“We need to know we’re putting the dollars where it is going to make the difference, because we’re already putting up those dollars on our side of the aisle,” Hudgins said.
Yet school officials see such budget reductions not as misplaced priorities but as a sign of the dire state of the FCPS budget situation, exposing the gulf that still exists between the school system and the county.
Steve Greenburg, at the start of his speech before the Board of Supervisors, donned a Darth Vader mask and black cape and played a recording of the villain’s theme from the Star Wars movies “to lighten the tension,” he joked.
“This debate about the budget brings out the dark side in all of us,” Greenburg said.
Still, wearing a nametag that proclaimed him as “Dark Grader,” Greenburg, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, pulled no punches in pressing for more money for schools.
In the last five years, county funding for schools has increased by an average of 1.1 percent annually. Greenburg said the full 5.7 percent increase requested by the school system would be the least the county could do “to make up for years of underfunding.”
However, school advocates were not the only ones out in full force at this week’s hearings. The Board of Supervisors was pulled in many directions, hearing calls for funding for other county services and pleas from homeowners against raised tax rates.
The Board of Supervisors could increase the county’s real estate tax rate by up to two cents per $100 of assessed value to generate more revenue, which then could provide an increase in funding to schools. But each penny added to the tax rate adds $50 on average to homeowners’ annual tax bills.
“These are tough times, and we need to consider what we can do,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield).