- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2000

Fairfax County, Va., schools had a $41 million school surplus left over from last year's budget, unknown to the public and elected officials, during the final debate over the record $2 billion budget adopted for the coming year, according to a school board member and the internal auditor.
The auditor said similar surpluses were concealed in 1998 and 1997.
"I'm very angry about this," said at-large School Board member Mychele Brickner. "If people can't trust the figures we give them, then why should they believe us when we ask for more funds?"
Other school officials dispute that the system has overbudgeted and has millions of dollars in unspent funds.
"Money doesn't fall from heaven. It falls from unspent categories," Superintendent Daniel Domenech said last night at a Fairfax County School Board meeting. "We overestimate expenditures and underestimate revenues to make sure we're on budget.
"All dollars and cents have been accounted for."
Jane Strauss, board member from the Dranesville District and Audit Committee chairman, agreed.
"It's an accounting tool," she said. "The ending balance is where we draw a stop point for auditors. Does that mean we actually have money left over? No. We still have have bills to pay for goods that we have ordered and have yet to be delivered. The ending balance has nothing to do with what money is actually uncommitted."
According to an audit report released yesterday, Fairfax County schools have a surplus for various items such as textbooks, because the system failed to spend the amounts allotted, sometimes shifting spending to other budget items, say some board members.
In the meantime, the School Board, administration and community have pushed the county and state for even larger increases in funding.
"[The administration] has threatened that because we have a $31 million shortfall, we are facing increasing class sizes and textbook cutbacks," Mrs. Brickner said. "All the while, we had plenty of money that we didn't spend." Sources also said school officials tried to bury the report until the budget process was finished.
Other officials say the $1.4 billion budget has built-in elasticity to account for unforeseen expenditures such as rising fuel prices or unexpected enrollment.
"We don't know how much fuel is going to cost or how many children come to us in a year," Mrs. Strauss said. "We build variances into the budget to make sure we have reserves so we don't end up operating in the red. This is serious business in Virginia. School Board members are criminally liable for that."
"We can not go begging to the Board of Supervisors for help," she added.
Another factor is multiyear budgeting, Mrs. Strauss said. Schools are allowed to carry over unused money for projects in the next year. This way, she said, a school doesn't have to spend the last $1,000 in June for books it doesn't really need when it can be carried over for something more urgent, regardless of when the expenditure arises.
Robert Frye, at-large member and chairman of the board, admitted he's known of the surplus over the years.
"We as a board need to ask ourselves what we need to do [about the surplus]," he said.
A majority of the board members, however, seemed surprised by the surpluses and deferred future talks until tomorrow's budget discussion.
Faced with rapidly expanding enrollment, Fairfax County school officials recently warned that programs will have to be cut and classes will be more crowded without more funding.
"We'll have 4,000 new students this fall and at least 50 percent will be in special needs or English as a second language programs," Mr. Domenech said.
The 156,000-student school system is facing a $36 million operating deficit that officials contend could require as much as $31 million in cuts during the 2001 academic year. Among the proposals are reductions in funding for textbooks and supplies, a scaling back of plans to hire 2,000 additional teachers and elimination of technology positions.
In the case of textbooks, Mrs. Brickner said the system in 1999 only used a portion of the $9.8 million allotted for textbooks and other instructional materials.
"The superintendent is saying we might have to cut the amount of textbooks we purchase because of the shortfall," she said. "But we didn't use what we had set aside. We need to cut what we put in certain categories and look at what is left and what is needed."
Officials are not considering cuts in teacher salaries or eliminating a 5 percent raise they say is needed to stem the loss to private sector jobs and neighboring school systems.
School officials have been looking to the county to increase spending. They also want the state to contribute more toward education in one of the state's most influential counties.
The alternative is a decline in the quality of education that will hurt property values and the prospects for continued economic growth, Mr. Domenech said.

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