Compensation, Achievement Gaps Weigh on School Budget Hearing
School board will hold a work session on the budget Thursday
A week before the Fairfax County School Board is scheduled to approve a fiscal year 2013 budget, community members advocated Tuesday for closing achievement gaps, increasing funding for employee compensation and providing benefits to parent liaisons at a public hearing for next year's spending plan.
Superintendant Jack Dale presented his adjustments to the $2.4 billion budget during a markup session Monday, which removes step increases for eligible employees and calls for a 2 percent compensation market rate adjustment (MRA).
The payment changes come in light of this year's General Assembly legislation requiring public school employees who participate in the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) to pay a 5 percent employee contribution, which school systems currently pay. To offset the increased contribution, the legislation also requires school systems to pay a 5 percent salary increase to employees.
Dale has proposed to implement a full shift to 5 percent in 2013 rather than incrementally over the next five years. Additionally, he proposed FCPS take on 2 percent of teachers’ contributions to the Educational Employees’ Supplementary Retirement System of Fairfax County (ERFC). Employees currently pay 4 percent to the fund.
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About 50 speakers testified before the school board during the 2.5-hour hearing. At Monday's work session, board members emphasized the public hearing would hold significant weight in how it proceeds with the budget plan.
"We are feeling betrayed," said Kimberly Adams, representing the Fairfax Education Association. "The school board can and must make its employees a priority. The 4 percent MRA we are calling for offsets the losses from VRS changes and provides for a decent [rate] similar to that of county employees."
Fairfax County teachers are, on average, paid the third-most in the state, according to Virginia Department of Education data, behind Arlington County and Alexandria City public school systems. Arlington and Alexandria have average teacher salaries of roughly $70,000. Fairfax County has an average teacher salary of about $64,000.
Lauren Villa, a history teacher at South Lakes High School, drew rousing applause from fellow educators during her emotional testimony.
"In his 2008 State of the Union address, President Obama called [teachers] nation builders. Do you believe that?" she asked the board, holding back tears.
Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, advocated for both teacher pay and an independent school board staff.
"You need staff of your own to better respond to your constituencies," he said. "The FCPS budget is over $2 billion a year and you need to properly focus … so we can cut the waste and get the money to the classroom for the kids and the teachers.
"We understand what it means to be overworked. Enough is enough."
Other citizens testified in support of parent liaison benefits, which the school board will vote on before the budget is adopted.
Julie Bell, a Bucknell Elementary parent and PTA representative, said she considered parent liaisons as school staff.
"There’s an incredible workload for these individuals, and the value of their service to our schools and community is priceless," Bell said. "They conduct classes to teach English and Spanish. They teach computer courses to those parents who are novices to technology.… They are integral in providing services to those in need and making a better tomorrow."
Parent liaison Marcia St. John-Cunning spoke on behalf of herself and her 127 colleagues in the FCPS system.
"Most of us carry a full-time workload and manage to accomplish it on a part time schedule," she said, adding that the relationships she has made with parents are invaluable. "Parents have confided in me about domestic violence, unscrupulous slumlords, employers that are exploiting them … gang activity, teen pregnancy, homelessness and hunger."
Parent liaisons help resolve these issues by being proactive, said St. John-Cunning, who has been in the program for 12 years.
"We need and deserve health and retirement benefits," she said.
Sheree Brown-Kaplan, who recently ran for a position on the school board, testified on behalf of the Coalition of the Silence, an organization founded by former at-large school board member Tina Hone that advocates for youths underserved by the school system.
She and the Coalition also supported parent liaison benefits, but called for the school board to look more closely at funding for programs that would help close the reading achievement gaps among students.
Brown-Kaplan said reading proficiency by the end of third grade had to be made a student achievement goal for which the school board could be held accountable.
The Coalition applauded the adjusted package’s inclusion of funding for extended learning time.
"Let’s focus on closing the achievement gap," said Hone, who also spoke to the board at Tuesday's hearing. "Using an outcome-oriented approach, you would need a smaller class size in needier schools, more time in school for at-risk kids … [a] laser focus on third grade reading.
"We consider this budget a good start," she said. "Next year we want a better start."
The school board will further discuss the budget at a work session 7 p.m. Thursday at Luther Jackson Middle School. A vote on the budget will be taken May 24.