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The Fairfax County School Board approved a $2.5 billion budget last Friday that increases class sizes and eliminates 720 positions but provides pay increases for most employees.

While crafting the budget, Superintendent Karen Garza expressed worries over closing a projected shortfall. But even though the school system received a smaller increase in funding from the county than requested, the school system managed to fill the gap.

Budget cuts totaled more than $97 million, including an increase in class size across all grades — by 0.5 students per teacher in elementary and middle schools and 1.0 student per teacher in high school. With the reductions, school officials aimed to cover spending increases caused by enrollment growth and rising retirement and health insurance costs, as well as pay raises for 95 percent of school employees.

As part of squeezing the budget into its final shape, though, Garza delayed the 2-percent salary increases by four months.

Most employees, including teachers, will see the bump in their paycheck starting in November, rather than the beginning of the fiscal year in July. The delay saves the school system about $12 million.

This move in particular caused ripples of tension in the School Board ahead of the final 9-3 budget approval vote early Friday morning.

The three School Board members who voted against the budget - Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) and Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) - counted teacher compensation as a key issue.

The School Board as a whole has held up better pay for teachers as a priority, but McLaughlin questioned that dedication based on the final budget.

McLaughlin held up the cancellation of planned Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate testing fees for students as an example of money that could go toward teachers’ paychecks.

The testing fees were included in the advertised budget the School Board passed in February. Requiring students’ families rather than the school system to pay the fees would save the system an estimated $4 million.

McLaughlin introduced a motion to reinstate the planned testing fees and put that money into moving up employee pay raises. Several School Board members expressed concern that the fees would discourage students from taking the advanced classes, but McLaughlin noted that lower income students can qualify for fee waivers.

“We need to demonstrate that what is most important is to compensate our employees the best we can,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not to pay for our middle and upper income families’ test fees.”

Still, the motion failed 2-10, with only McLaughlin and Schultz in favor.

School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully), who supported the final budget, said that the onus for teacher pay fell not on the school system but on the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors control the amount of county funding that goes to the schools. This year, Garza requested a 5.7 percent increase in funding over last year, but the supervisors granted a 3 percent increase.

“I think Dr. Garza positioned us very well to advocate for our greatest priority, funding for our staff,” said School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully). “I think our difficulty was that we still have an issue getting our major funding source to understand that battle.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com