What do you call a $10 million-a-year public school fund for which "no historical records" are available to document how and where the money was spent? Fairfax County Public Schools calls it the "staffing reserve." Irate parents refer to it as a slush fund.
The theory behind the staffing reserve is simple. It allows FCPS to hire additional teachers if there's an unexpected surge in enrollment. But it doesn't work that way in practice. For example, when the principal of Wolftrap Elementary asked for additional help because a third-grade class had 36 students, the school was allotted .2 teachers from the staffing reserve -- enough for one teacher to come in just one day a week.
Wolftrap is not the only Fairfax County school with classes much larger than the advertised average. Parents have painstakingly begun compiling a list after their requests for information about the staffing reserve were stonewalled by FCPS. Churchill Road, Haycock and Spring Hill elementary schools all have classes at or exceeding 30 students. This has been going on for years, even though numerous studies show academic achievement goes down when the student-teacher ratio goes up.
School Board member Elizabeth Schultz, representing the Springfield District, also hit a brick wall when she tried to find out why some classes were still so large despite the well-funded staffing reserve. But in an email exchange obtained by The Washington Examiner, FCPS Superintendent Jack Dale informed Schultz there were "no historical records" available beyond this year.
A clearly incredulous Schultz asked Dale why, if the staffing reserve is predominantly used to meet unexpected enrollment demands, it has been steadily increasing, since "the circumstances which dictate the need for an additional teacher here or there do not materially and geographically change across our entire school system every year." And because "unexpected students do not evaporate the following year," Schultz added, the need for extra teachers should be going down, not up.
FCPS allocated $9.3 million for the staffing reserve in its fiscal 2012 budget, but nearly $11 million for fiscal 2013, with no explanation. Next year's approved budget increases the staffing reserve by six full-time positions, costing taxpayers an additional $526,363.
"With no historical data of how, why and where tens of millions have been spent or on what teaching or support positions they have been allocated, continued annual growth in this category is unverifiable," Schultz told Dale, calling the staffing reserve "a $10 million untracked pool of labor."
Dale acknowledged that placing up to 240 reserve teachers involves "a large group deliberation." They receive paychecks and benefits just like other FCPS teachers. So somebody in Dale's finance office had to transfer the money from the staffing reserve account to payroll. Somebody else in the human resources office had to have known where these reserve teachers were sent, and the same applies to the administrators to whose clusters they were assigned.
But nobody in FCPS, from the superintendent on down, is willing to provide this information to an elected School Board member, the taxpayers she represents, or the parents of children stuck in a single third-grade math class with 35 other students.
When Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay recently complained during a public session on the schools, which consume roughly half of Fairfax County's $3.5 billion budget, that "you really can't tell exactly what money is going to what school, and you really can't measure whether or not that money is being wisely used," he wasn't kidding.
When complaints about the lack of transparency are met by official obfuscation, it often means there's something to hide.
Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.