The Fairfax County School Board found nearly $10 million in unspent funding in its current budget and will set most of the money aside to spend next year -- a downpayment on a budget deficit expected to go as high as $162 million.
The board won't go through it's entire $2.4 billion budget looking for additional savings, although officials said they expect to find more unused cash following the fourth-quarter budget review.
"Most of the budget is in the schools, in funded positions and programs, so unless there is a catastrophic need, you don't want to necessarily begin to pull back teaching programs," said Jane Strauss, the school board's Dranesville District representative and longest-serving member. Still, she acknowledged, "We're clearly going to have to be very careful."
Fairfax County Public Schools now face a projected deficit of $94 million. That's after declining to give teachers their standard raises, which would have driven the shortfall up to $148 million, the largest such deficit any school board member can remember.
While the $94 million covers the bare basics, the school system has identified an additional $68 million shortfall in "significant program needs" such as new textbooks, music teachers and inspection of electrical hazards in schools. That would bring the school budget deficit to $162 million.
Fairfax County Executive Ed Long indicated to school officials that the county would provide just $84 million in additional funding. It's unclear how much funding the schools will receive from the state and federal governments, though school officials don't expect to see an increase in that funding.
Some school board members suggested reopening the current 2013 budget so they could look for extra cash, but that suggestion was rejected by the rest of the board.
The $9.7 million the board has found so far came from a routine review of third-quarter spending. About $3 million became available because Fairfax brought in new hires at lower salaries than it anticipated. An additional $3 million came from the city of Fairfax, which owed more than expected for its students who attend county schools.
The school system also received more federal funding than it expected for students with disabilities and changed its bus inspection schedule to be more cost-effective.
The school system's own "Trust and Confidence Survey," released last month, showed 52 percent of county parents support the board's handling of their finances, while 18 percent do not.