Fairfax County Public Schools are facing a $140 million budget shortfall, a disparity expected to lead to deep cuts in staffing and educational programs, officials say.
Unable to keep pace with growing enrollment and increasing costs, schools are facing a deficit that could translate into staff cuts and furloughs, the elimination of foreign language instruction in elementary schools, and larger class sizes.
Superintendent Dr. Karen Garza has only been on the job since July, but she says this is the most serious fiscal challenge the school system has ever faced. Higher enrollment and health insurance costs, and the loss of millions of dollars in in state revenue are all adding up, and funding just can't keep up.
Some of Garza's suggested changes:
- Cut back on school counselors and instructional assistants to save $20 million a year.
- Increasing class sizes by one student would save another $20 million.
- Cutting foreign language programs in elementary schools would save $5.5 million a year.
- A one-day furlough for all of the system's employees would save $8 million.
- Cutting employees' contract by one day would save another $9 million.
More than 88 percent of the school district's $2.5 billion operating fund for fiscal year 2014 will go to staff pay and benefits for its more than 23,800 full-time employees.
But deep staff cuts could be coming in 2015. Some of Garza's other ideas to make up the shortfall include eliminating some librarians, psychologists, social workers, secretaries and custodians.
"I think what the superintendent has stated is that everything is on the table," said John Torre, spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools. "And ultimately, it's the school board's decision to make these reductions, if these reductions are necessary."
In the past five years, 15,000 new students have enrolled in Fairfax County schools, bringing the total to about 185,000. Another 2,800 are expected by next year will cost the district $25 million. Also contributing to the gap is a $27 million increase in the health insurance rate, $37 million more in retirement contributions and a $21 million loss in state revenue.
“Unfortunately the previous administrations have left a real financial mess for this new superintendent,” Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steve Greenburg said.
He's still hopeful teachers will get raises this year.
School district leaders held an all-day work session Monday as they began planning for fiscal year 2015.
"What [Garza] wants to do today is just start the discussion about the challenges that the district is facing and the potential reductions that may be necessary to balance the budget," Torre said.
Carmela Leith, a mother of three students in Fairfax County schools, thinks the school system needs to keep the cuts out of the classroom.
"Kids are supposed to come first," she said. "They need to look elsewhere to fix the deficit."
The measures would be just the latest in a series of budget cuts. The school district says over the past few years, it's slashed more than $475 million from the budget, eliminated more than 1,450 positions and froze employee pay rates in 2010 and 2011, with no step increases since 2009.
Garza stressed that the proposed ideas are just that, and the school board will make the final decisions.
"This is not a sprint; it's a marathon," she said. "We won't finish this process until May. So we may talk about things today that may not be cut down the road."
The final budget will be presented and approved in the spring.