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Fairfax Approves $2.2B School Budget That Cuts Jobs, Adds Fees (VA)

May 21, 2010

The Fairfax County School Board approved a $2.2 billion budget Thursday night that cuts 200 positions, introduces fees for sports and Advanced Placement tests, and phases out some longstanding programs that have supported the county’s poorest schools.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July is $35 million less than this year’s budget, even as the region’s largest school system plans for 1,700 more students. The plan eliminates nearly all summer school offerings and closes an alternative high school.

Earlier fiscal forecasts were more dire, with officials proposing the elimination of popular programs and services, including full-day kindergarten, band instruction in elementary school and foreign language immersion. But a boost in state aid, as well as a holiday for the county’s required pension contribution for state employees, allowed the School Board to save many threatened programs.

"The budget started out like a roller coaster," board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said. "We’ve had a lot of ups and downs with funding."

Some issues remained unsettled going into the board’s vote Thursday night. Some board members lobbied unsuccessfully to eliminate the proposed student fees, which are expected to generate nearly $4 million in revenue. Next year, students will be charged $100 per sport and $75 for each International Baccalaureate or AP test. Fees will not be charged to students eligible for free or reduced-price mea ls.

Most of the amendments, and the controversy, centered on a new pilot funding formula that will funnel additional training and resources to schools that have the greatest academic challenges, based on their performances on state tests or on achievement gaps.

The formula, called the "Priority Schools Initiative," proposed by School Superintendent Jack D. Dale, will replace a patchwork of older programs in schools serving more poor or non-English-speaking students. The existing programs extend the school day or school year or add staff for specialized instruction in the arts or other subjects.

Dale and other officials have maintained that these approaches are not the most effective or efficient ways to promote academic success. Many parents have protested abandoning the programs in recent weeks, as have some county supervisors, who have no jurisdiction over how school funding is spent.

Some county schools that benefit from the programs have shown impressive results. Hollin Meadows Elementary School in the Alexandria section has a longer school day on Mondays (most elementary schools have only a half-day) and receives extra funding for science and math instruction.

With the additional funds, the school has developed a nationally known outdoor classroom with 14,000 acres of gardens, which first lady Michelle Obama visited and which won a U.S. Department of Agriculture award.

Hollin Meadows Principal Jon Gates said he has saved enough money to retain the extra classes and programming for one more year. "Then it’s gone," he said.

The board last night approved an additional $1.3 million to help schools like Hollin Meadows transit ion from the long-time support for longer school days and other supports. The Alexandria school is also one of 30 found eligible for the new funding initiative.

Board members emphasized that the school system’s financial stresses are likely to intensify next year, when federal stimulus dollars dry up and teachers are looking for relief after two years of salary freezes.

"Everything that was at risk in this budget is at risk next year," said board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill).