The Fairfax County School Board voted last Thursday to fund a move to full-day Mondays for elementary schools as it divvied up surplus year-end dollars.
The board had already approved the schedule change at the end of June, but had not laid out a plan for financing it. Board members voted unanimously to earmark $7.6 million for the initiative out of $38 million in leftover funds.
Money left unspent by the school system during the previous year pools in this extra pot of cash.
The school system uses conservative spending estimates by design, chief operating officer Susan Quinn said. As a result, lower-than-projected costs often leave unspent cash in the $2.5 billion budget. The School Board can choose to allocate these dollars at its own discretion.
The School Board voted to spend $15 million of the surplus cash, putting the money toward new buses, synthetic turf fields, facilities maintenance projects and foreign language curriculum development. The school system will hold onto the other $23 million.
FCPS has drawn criticism for budget politicking. In forming the fiscal year 2015 budget, school officials pushed for more money from the county government in the face of a large projected deficit. Despite the stated budget woes, though, the school system has tens of millions in cash remaining at end of the year, repeating a pattern from previous years.
Yet Superintendent Karen Garza said the leftover money represents responsible budgetary practice.
“It’s similar to your household budget,” Garza said. “If you spend to the last penny, you’re in a dangerous position for next year.”
This year’s surplus is smaller than last year’s $55 million, noted Garza, and it represents just 1.5 percent of the school system’s $2.5 billion budget.
The decrease in year-end balance concerns Garza, who said this pool of money should provide a cushion for fluctuating costs rather than a crutch to hold up projects and initiatives.
Facing a lean budget, though, School Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said the school system does not have a choice but to dip into the year-end balance.
“We were left tens of millions of dollars short by our funders this year,” Hynes said.
Hynes refers to the county’s Board of Supervisors, who hold the purse strings for the school system. While the Board of Supervisors increased the school system’s 2015 budget by $51.5 million compared to the previous year, Garza had requested nearly double that amount.
Despite budget tension, School Board members continued to express hope of working with the county’s Board of Supervisors to receive county support for the move to full-day Mondays.
Still, by committing $7.6 million for full-day Mondays, the highest limit of the cost estimate for the project, the School Board assured that the plan will be carried out with or without extra money from the county.
The Board of Supervisors has directed County Executive Ed Long to work with Garza and the School Board on funding for full-day Mondays, both for 2015 and future years.
The Board of Supervisors will meet in early September to review the county’s own year-end surplus for fiscal 2014, totalling $34 million. The board could send some of that money to the school system.
“I do urge them to support our efforts by sharing the costs of funding this calendar change as they make their decision in September,” School Board Chairman Tammy Derenak Kaufax (Lee) said.