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Local: Education

Fairfax can't afford to plug hole in school budget

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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,Taylor Holland

Fairfax school officials were told Tuesday that the county may not be able to cover a $94 million hole in the schools' budget because the county faces a budget shortfall of its own.

The county expects its 2014 budget to be out of balance by $169 million, a shortfall that will grow to $274 million in 2015. And that gloomy picture would only get worse if the federal government fails to strike a deal that would avert massive tax increases and spending cuts that could devastate Northern Virginia's economy, County Executive Ed Long said.

"These are large numbers that are not going to be easily solved," Long said of the county's deficits. "And these numbers could very well get worse."

All of that is bad news for the county's tops-in-the-nation schools, which account for half of the county's spending. School officials would have to find the money they need elsewhere or start cutting programs to accommodate a student population that surged by 9 percent to 181,500 students since 2007.

Supervisor John Cook, R-Braddock, said school officials are going to have to reconsider their funding priorities.

"There is no additional $100 million," Cook said. "To add or expand anything new is going to be a really tough sell now that we know that these [shortfalls] are our problems."

Besides a $94 million budget shortfall, Fairfax schools need an additional $68 million to address "significant program needs," such as smaller class sizes, textbooks and maintenance, Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale said.

School board member Elizabeth Schultz, of the Springfield District, said officials recognize the tough economic situation faced by the county, but urged supervisors to help cover the schools' budget shortfall.

"This is the beginning of a very difficult establishment of priorities for both boards," Schultz said. "But it's very difficult to be testing students in storage closets ... I'm looking to you to lighten our load."

Tuesday's joint meeting between the supervisors and school officials was likely just the first of many through the rest of the year as the county struggles to write a new budget.

"Education is what brings a lot of people to Fairfax," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland, D-Mount Vernon. "If there was ever a time that we needed to work together, God knows it's now."

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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