Funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education is Fairfax County’s top priority for the 2018 legislative session, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told the Virginia General Assembly’s Fairfax delegation at its annual public hearing on Jan. 6.

County officials have argued for years that, as Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) should receive a bigger portion of the state’s education funds to support the system’s sizable population.

Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors also listed education funding as its top priority in the legislative program it adopted before the General Assembly’s 2017 session.

“We’ve made some progress, but we need to continue to move this issue forward,” Bulova said.

Virginia allocates education funding based on each locality’s ability to pay, so because of the area’s generally high property values and gross income levels, the state sees Northern Virginia jurisdictions as less in need of funding.

According to the FCPS website, the county covered 71.2 percent of the school system’s $2.8 billion operating budget for Fiscal Year 2018, whereas the state covered 23 percent.

However, county and state spending has struggled to keep pace with costs, as Fairfax County’s public school system has taken budget cuts totaling more than $500 million since FY 2008, including nearly $250 million over the past four years, according to FCPS’s FY 2019 school operating fund fiscal forecast.

FCPS Department of Financial Services assistant superintendent Kristen Michael presented the FY 2019 fiscal forecast to the Fairfax County School Board at a work session on Sept. 18, 2017.

With more than 188,000 students and about 27,500 employees, FCPS is the 10th largest school division in the U.S. and the third largest employer in Virginia, according to the school division’s website.

According to Bulova, only four divisions in the state have more total students than Fairfax County receiving free or reduced-price lunches or learning English as a second language (ESOL).

In addition, FCPS’s population of students receiving special education services is bigger than the total student population for all but 10 school divisions in Virginia.

“We need adequate funding to provide appropriate services for these higher needs students,” Bulova said.

According to Fairfax County School Board chair and Dranesville District representative Jane Strauss, enrollment growth, particularly when it comes to the school’s special needs populations, and employee salaries are the most pressing budget drivers for FCPS.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed 2018-2020 state budget includes a 2 percent salary increase to address teacher shortages, but Fairfax County projects that the raise would only cover about 10 percent of a full-year increase for all personnel, Strauss says.

The county school board’s goals for the General Assembly are to return state funding to 2009 levels adjusted for inflation and fully restore support position cost of competing adjustment (COCA) funding, which provides an increase in state money to jurisdictions with a more competitive labor market.

Through Strauss, the school board also asked the General Assembly to find additional funds to support FCPS’s large ESOL, economically disadvantaged, and special education student populations, and to remove the state’s overall cap on funding for support positions.

Strauss also requested that state officials consider giving localities, especially counties, greater flexibility in revenue options, since they currently only have the authority to levy property taxes without going through either voters or the General Assembly.

A referendum to establish a meals tax for Fairfax County failed when it appeared on the 2016 general election ballot. The referendum dictated that, if passed, 70 percent of the revenue from the meals tax would have gone to the public schools system.

In addition to seeking more state funding for education, the Fairfax County School Board expressed support in its 2018 state and federal legislative program for efforts to give local school divisions more flexibility in determining how to allocate instructional time, which could make it easier for schools to ensure students get adequate time for recess.

State Senator Chap Petersen (D-34th) introduced a bill on Jan. 5 that would authorize local school boards to include unstructured recreational time when calculating total instructional time or teaching hours for grades one through six.

S.B. 273 was referred to the Senate’s committee on education and health before the General Assembly officially convened on Wednesday.

Unstructured, physical play is crucial for healthy brain development and helps improve cognitive abilities, academic achievement, and behavioral and social functioning, according to Dr. Shannon Hamilton, a neuroscientist as well as a mother of two soon-to-be kindergarten students.

Hamilton was one of five representatives from the More Recess for Virginians campaign, a grassroots group of parents and educators from around the Commonwealth, to speak at the Fairfax delegation’s public hearing.

“Recess – unstructured, physical play – is the most effective way to release cognitive loads,” Hamilton said. “It allows the child to return to their classroom with a renewed ability to focus and actually retain what they’re learning.”

Members of Fairfax County’s delegation to the General Assembly heard testimony from more than 100 speakers at the 2018 session public hearing, which was held at the Fairfax County Government Center and lasted from 9:00 a.m. until around 2:30 pm.

While the comments touched on a wide range of subjects, from climate change to redistricting reform, the need to support children and families even beyond the public school system seemed to be a particularly persistent, recurring theme.

Several constituents called on the Fairfax County delegation to address Virginia’s long waiting list of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities seeking Medicaid waivers, an issue that also cropped up at a regional public hearing on the proposed state budget held on Jan. 3 by the General Assembly’s House appropriations and Senate finance committees.

As of the end of 2017, the number of people waiting to receive a waiver grew to 12,197 people, including 3,003 people designated as Priority 1, according to The Arc of Northern Virginia executive director Rikki Epstein.

Based in Falls Church, The Arc of Northern Virginia is the local chapter of a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Administered through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and the Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS), Virginia’s Medicaid community living and individual and family support waivers help cover in-home care, assistive technology, residential services, and other vital resources.

McAuliffe’s proposed budget includes an additional 825 new waiver slots along with $937,238 in funding for 50 community living reserve waiver slots to help address emergency situations.

Priority 1 designations indicate people who are in urgent need of services, preferably within a year, though many of them end up waiting for several years, according to Epstein.

“Virginia should not be a state that is comfortable allowing people with developmental disabilities to remain in crisis for years and years on end,” Epstein said. “…It is time to fund Priority 1 and end the urgent wait for services. These families have waited long enough.”

Some of those families appeared before the Fairfax delegation to the General Assembly to share their personal experiences in dealing with the Medicaid waiver waiting list.

Mary Ford’s 26-year-old son, Christian, has microcephaly, a neurological disorder that caused him to develop a small brain and limits his ability to speak and take care of himself.

At 13, he qualified for a waiver to provide in-home services, such as assistance with preparing meals and transportation, and the family later used the waiver to hire an attendant once he aged out of after-school care.

However, difficulties with training and retaining assistants eventually led Ford’s husband to stay home and take care of their son himself.

They have been on the waitlist for a family and individual supports developmental disability waiver, which could help prepare their son to live more independently, for eight years now.

Similarly, Sherita Ivory’s son, Amari, has been waiting for a Medicaid waiver since he was in elementary school.

Now 18, Amari sat in a wheelchair in front of the General Assembly Fairfax County delegation and demonstrated his sorting and organizational skills as his mother shared his story.

“If we had a waiver, for the first time, I’d be able to acquire an aide, the chance to modify our home to make it better suited to him, or adaptive equipment to help Amari maneuver around and communicate his needs,” Ivory said. “…He has so much potential and would love to use those skills in a workplace setting where he can have a greater quality of life. He deserves that chance, but without a waiver, when he graduates, we will be limited to only what I can provide for him alone.”

Other advocates urged the General Assembly to address the current lack of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides coverage for children who are uninsured but belong to families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid.

Though the program is administered by states, CHIP is funded jointly through both states and the federal government.

Federal funding expired in September, and emergency funds could run out soon unless Congress passes a long-term plan, according to Voices for Virginia’s Children representative and Fairfax County resident Mary Beth Testa, who says that over 68,000 children and 1,100 pregnant women are insured through the Virginia’s version of the CHIP program, FAMIS.

Voices for Virginia’s Children is an independent child policy and advocacy nonprofit that lists early care and education, foster care and adoption, health and wellness, juvenile justice, and family economic security among its core concerns.

“This is desperate, and this is right now,” Testa said. “I urge you to remain aware of this issue and also advocate within the General Assembly to continue to provide health insurance for these children and pregnant women using state general funds if Congress fails to come up with a solution.”

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