Fairfax County School Board members and teachers are praising teacher raises, hires and other plans to address the system’s rising enrollment in Superintendent Jack Dale’s proposed $2.4 billion budget — but some officials say his request for an increase of 8.4 percent in county funds, which dictates much of the plan, is unrealistic.
"Boy, 8 percent sounds like quite a jump," Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova said Friday. "We need to be sensitive to the affordability of taxes to our residents. … An 8 percent increase seems like a stretch."
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, acknowledged Dale's proposal was facing a tough fight.
"I don't think it does any good to be anything but optimistic," he said.
The county's transfer to the schools, funded largely by real estate and personal property taxes, accounts for nearly 71 percent of Dale's proposed budget; about 53 percent of the county's budget goes to the schools.
When presenting the budget to the board Thursday night, Dale told school board members several unpredictable budget factors were in play, among them, the amount of the county transfer and state-level cuts included in Gov. Bob McDonnell's budget, which won't be finalized until April.
County Executive Anthony Griffin won't release his budget proposal for the county, including a transfer amount, until Feb. 28. Supervisor John Foust, echoing what Dale told reporters earlier on Thursday, said Griffin has informally mentioned a 5 percent increase in the county's transfer.
That would amount to an increase of about $80 million, instead of the $135.4 million increase Dale included in his proposal.
Even a 5 percent increase is "kind of high," Foust said. "But we'll start at the point."
"We have to increase the schools budget with a cost of living" increase, he said.
Bulova said the county's recovery is "very tepid," insufficient to meet all of the "pent-up demands" including more funding for human services, public safety and transportation.
"Managing expectations is going to be a major challenge during this budget," said Bulova, who added she hadn't yet been fully been briefed on the details of Dale's proposal. "I am sympathetic to the needs of the school system with a growing student population that they're struggling to serve, so some increase is probably reasonable in order for them to meet that challenge. … It’s important we continue to maintain the kind of excellent school system that makes everything else work well."
School Board members and a teacher union representative were cautiously optimistic Thursday night after Dale's presentation.
Patty Reed (Providence) said after years of talking about teacher compensation and workload, Dale's proposal "put our money where our mouth is" on the issues; improving both has been near the top of the board's priority list for several years.
"There's a whole lot to like in this budget, if we can get the funding," said Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), whose district is often home to many of the system's minority, disadvantaged or underperforming students. The budget, particularly the reinstatement of summer school, would "truly make a difference for our neediest kids," he said.
Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) told Dale the projected population and demographic shifts concerned her, saying the data the board has received over the past several years didn't give an adequate picture of what was coming.
"The concern is that demographics drive everything, how many teachers we need, the curriculum we have," she said. "Maybe we have to be humble enough that if we don't possess those strengths and do it well then we need to look [elsewhere]. I'm going to be very much encouraging us to improve our ability to budget based on our ability to predict who we're going to have going forward."
Dale noted the system brought on a full-time demographer within the past two years.
Greenburg said he was happy to see Dale's proposal addressed teacher workload and tuition reimbursement, among the improvements to compensation, after several pleas to the board for help managing and accounting for employee's extra work.
"I just hope that all of the entities around him he's counting on to support it, i.e. the state, the supervisors, will come in behind him," Greenburg said.
He asked the school board Thursday night to consider hiring a full-time staff member for each of the board's 12 representatives. That would allow staff members to strengthen their own budget weaknesses and spend more time engaging with stakeholders, both during budget season and throughout the year, he said.
On a night in which the board also appointed its members as liaisons to federal, state and local groups and commissions, Greenburg again asked the board to create a standing liaison position with the county's two major teachers unions, "as a model for not just now in the future, to have that regular communication."