Local: Education

Fairfax schools projecting $150 million shortfall

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Photo - Students at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax. (Examiner file photo)
Students at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Virginia,Education,Lisa Gartner

Fairfax County Public Schools are facing a $147.9 million budget shortfall next year, the largest hole even senior school board members can recall, as rainy day funds dry up and teacher compensation and student enrollment become more burdensome.

The county's schools are poised to enter fiscal 2014 with $38.6 million less than the current year, while more students and higher payouts for retirements and health insurance mean $23.1 million in extra expenses. Add another $86.2 million in pay raises, cost-of-living increases and pension costs for school employees.

That leaves the system $150 million in the hole -- not including $90 million in new programs school officials have identified but don't expect to fully fund -- at a time when the county government, its chief funding source, is expecting a $100 million shortfall. The schools would need a 9 percent increase from the county's current $1.68 billion contribution to cover the gap.

Budget blues
Current schools budget: $2.4 billion
Funding from Fairfax County: $1.68 billion; 70 percent of budget
Change in revenue expected in fiscal 2014: $38.6 million decrease
Required expenditures in fiscal 2014: $23.1 million increase
Projected compensation needs (teacher raises, etc.): $86.2 million increase
Projected deficit: $147.9 million
Totals do not include "identified program needs" such as new textbooks, music teachers and inspection of electrical hazards in schools: $90.8 million
Source: Fairfax County Public Schools

Upon hearing that news during a briefing Monday, Fairfax County School Board Member Elizabeth Schultz, who represents the Springfield District, laughed out loud; last year's 4.5 percent funding increase was considered generous.

"Sorry, I thought we needed a little relief there," said Schultz, while a colleague quipped, "Where's the dramatic music when you need it?"

It's not uncommon for Fairfax County's school system to enter a budget cycle with a deficit. Initial budget projections assume county and state funding will remain flat from one year to the next, although that's rarely the case. But what is unusual is the size of the shortfall, which is expected to worsen in fiscal 2015 to $209.9 million. Fairfax cushioned itself last year by dipping into reserves, including $43.7 million from its retirement program.

"We've relied heavily on one-time savings, and those savings are starting to amount to almost nothing," said Susan Quinn, chief financial officer for FCPS.

Superintendent Jack Dale, who plans to retire at the end of this school year, said the schools should consider shedding staff. "I don't see us getting out of here soon, so it comes down to tough questions," Dale said.

Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said he supported an idea from some of the newer board members -- six of the 12 began their terms in January -- who want to open up the current budget and do a line-item analysis to find savings.

Jane Strauss, who joined the school board in 1991 and represents the Dranesville District, reminded her colleagues that much remains to be determined before the budget is officially adopted in May.

"I've never seen [a budget] that looks like this, where we really can't guess what the revenue will be at the state, county level," Strauss said. "We need to be really careful when we plan this budget, because we're in a deeper hole than we've ever been, bottom line."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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Lisa Gartner

Examiner Staff Writer - education
The Washington Examiner