Giant bite of the Apple

Accompanied by Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand, left, Fairfax County Executive Bryan Hill, right, addresses the media after presenting his Fiscal Year 2020 advertised budget.

For the second year in a row, Fairfax County plans to grant all of the transfer funds requested by the county school board.

If the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopts the advertised Fiscal Year 2020 budget plan presented on Tuesday by County Executive Bryan Hill, Fairfax County Public Schools will receive $2.35 billion from the county, a 3.82 percent--or $86.46 million--increase over the current FY 2019 budget.

FCPS accounts for 52.9 percent of the county’s general fund budget. Hill’s proposed county transfer to the public school system exceeds the $2.1 billion requested by the school board.

“This is a good news budget for Fairfax County and a good news budget for Fairfax County Public Schools,” FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said. “…It’s really unprecedented in a generation, so I want to thank County Executive Bryan Hill and the Board of Supervisors for working with our school board to forge a collaborative and cooperative relationship that puts the needs of students first, that puts the needs of our school system first.”

The FY 2020 advertised budget adopted by the Fairfax County School Board on Feb. 7 made employee compensation a priority, as the school system hopes to get teacher salaries in particular up to levels that would be competitive in the public education market.

Totaling close to $3 billion, FCPS’s proposed FY 2020 budget includes $55.2 million for the ongoing implementation of a new teacher salary scale and $46.8 million to give eligible employees a step increase.

If the proposal is approved by the school board on May 23, teachers would see a 6.2 percent salary increase on average with the largest gains going to educators in the middle of their careers, who have been lagging compared to the rest of the market, according to Brabrand.

The advertised budget allocates $85.8 million overall to employee compensation, including $2.7 million to cover rate increases for the Educational Employees’ Supplementary Retirement System of Fairfax County and $2.4 million for Fairfax County Employees’ Retirement System rate increases.

“Total compensation, if you spend your career in Fairfax County Public Schools, you’re going to be in as great shape as anybody could be,” Brabrand said.

In addition to addressing compensation for existing employees, the FCPS FY 2020 advertised budget provides funds for a number of new positions.

An effort to adjust staffing formulas to allow schools to hire teachers earlier, reduce elementary school class sizes, streamline elementary school needs-based staffing, and provide elementary school immersion program staffing would cost $4.3 million and add about 39 positions.

The advertised budget includes $4.3 million and 18.5 positions for implementing FCPSOn, an initiative to provide one laptop per student for all high schools.

The budget also allocates $2.9 million to fund the recurring costs of positions related to enhanced mental health support for students, threat assessment follow-up work, safety and security training improvements, and the creation of an opioid task force.

A report released last June by FCPS’s Office of Safety and Security recommended that the school system creates 18 additional mental health specialist positions in response to community concerns about nationwide gun violence at schools.

Transfer money from Fairfax County’s general fund budget accounts for 71.3 percent of FCPS’s budget proposal. The remainder would be covered by state and federal aid, sales tax revenue, the City of Fairfax, reserves, and other sources.

Emphasizing the importance of efficiency, Hill described Fairfax County’s budget outlook as overall positive, suggesting that the county maintain its current real estate tax rate of $1.15 per $100 of assessed value.

While home sales declined between 2017 and 2018, almost 76 percent of the more than 344,000 residential properties in Fairfax County saw an uptick in their assessed value with 2.36 percent as the average increase, bumping up the average tax bill by $149.16.

Nonresidential real estate values have also improved for the fourth year in a row with every category, including retail and other kinds of commercial properties, becoming more valuable.

The amount of empty office space in Fairfax County dropped to 18.4 million square feet, as office vacancy rates sat at 14.9 percent for direct occupancies and 15.5 percent for sublets at the end of 2018.

The county currently has 1.5 million square feet of office space under construction, according to Hill’s presentation.

“The future looks very bright for Fairfax County,” Hill said.

On the county side of the FY 2020 advertised budget, Hill proposes allocating more than $7 million and 35 new staff positions to address public safety needs, including $3 million for 17 new positions to staff the South County Police Station scheduled to open on Lorton Road in 2022.

The public safety budget also includes funding for the county’s ongoing Diversion First and gang prevention initiatives, a new opioid task force, and increases in capacity for emergency 911 calls.

Human services will receive over $19 million and add 62 positions in the FY 2020 advertised budget.

However, the biggest funding increase outside of FCPS and employee compensation under Hill’s budget plan goes to community development, where $26.4 million out of a requested $31.45 million is devoted to the Metro system.

Fairfax County’s required contribution to Metro can be adjusted later depending on the FY 2020 budget that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ultimately adopts, but Hill called the increased amount “problematic” since it draws funding away from other county needs.

In particular, Fairfax County supervisors expressed disappointment after Hill’s presentation that his advertised budget covers only a 1 percent market rate or cost-of-living adjustment for county government employee salaries.

The advertised budget allocates $38.17 million to increase pay by 3.3 percent for county employees, including just under $13.3 million for the 1 percent MRA and $22 million for performance, merit, and longevity increases.

“Obviously, the employees of Fairfax County are the folks that I really and truly care about, as Superintendent Brabrand does with his teachers,” Hill said. “They’re the lifeblood. They’re the people that make this place operate and run smoothly…The MRA is something I’m going to continue to work on between now and the time we do budget adoption.”

Fairfax County’s MRA formula dictates that the rate should go up by 2.51 percent this year, but Hill says an additional $20 million would be needed to fully fund an increase of that size.

According to SEIU Virginia 512, a union that represents some Fairfax and Loudoun County employees, funding the MRA at 1 percent instead of 2.51 percent will take approximately $860 away from an average county employee who makes $57,000 per year.

“Fairfax County employees love our community and work around the clock to help local families and businesses thrive,” Fairfax County Government Employees Union, FCGEU-SEIU, President Tammie Wondong said. “That’s why it’s deeply disappointing to see the budget proposal break the county’s promise to frontline employees by not fully funding the agreed-upon pay plan. The Board of Supervisors now has an opportunity to step up and make hard-working employees whole.”

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