- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

Fairfax County, Va., public schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech yesterday proposed a $1.49 billion budget for fiscal 2002 an increase of $115.4 million over last year but barely enough to cover the basics, he said.

The superintendent's budget proposes an overall increase of 8.4 percent over last year, with $1.1 billion coming from the county alone.

For 2002, Mr. Domenech projected a $40.8 million deficit in his budget which, he said, did not include any new initiatives. Rather, it focused on meeting the bare essentials, which include $44.7 million for growth in student enrollment and $22.2 million for a 2 percent increase in cost-of-living rates for employees, among other things.

"We cannot continue to run the school system with the level of funding we have," Mr. Domenech said, adding that the lack of funds was beginning to be felt inside the classrooms of county schools. "We have cut down on maintenance and supplies… . We cannot go on without textbooks, supplies and equipment."

Last year, Mr. Domenech proposed setting aside $1.4 million to expand Project Excel, a program designed to help the county's lowest-performing schools. This year, he said, there was no money to expand the program, despite improvements in the performance of at least half of the 20 Project Excel schools.

"We are cannibalizing the system by making a number of reductions … to make ends meet," he said. "We will do our best to provide a quality education, but this is going to affect student achievement."

Enrollment is expected to increase by 4,050 in 2002 to 165,000 students countywide and will continue an upward trend until at least 2008. In the past three years alone, the county has added 15,000 students to its schools.

The fiscal 2002 budget also does not accommodate several instructional and infrastructure needs, including reduction in class sizes and $13 million in building maintenance needs. Currently, class sizes in the county average in the mid-20s well above what is considered the ideal class size. But reducing class size by a single student per classroom entails a cost of $14 million, Mr. Domenech said.

Board member Mychele Brickner, at-large, said the school system could increase spending on supplies and maintenance by cutting down on areas such as technology.

"Technology can never take the place of a teacher," she said, adding that the proposed spending of $110 million on technology in fiscal 2002 was quite high.

She said she was glad that programs such as Project Excel had not been expanded this year. "If you have a tight budget, you shouldn't be expanding pilot programs," she said.

Board member Rita Thompson, at-large, called the budget "well thought-out and tight" but added that it was vital not to make cuts in student spending.

"If we have to cut some place, we have to make sure it's not on the students' backs," Mrs. Thompson said.

She stressed the need to push through a 1 percent sales tax increase, proposed by Board of Supervisors member Elaine McConnell, which could potentially raise $1.2 billion for school repairs and renovation over the next 10 years.

This year, it is projected that county and state aid together will make up 87.9 percent of all revenue for FCPS, with the state contributing just $215.8 million.

Both the superintendent and School Board members stressed the need for the state to contribute more to schools.

"We will continue to work very hard with the General Assembly to increase state funding," said School Board member Jane Strauss, Dranesville District, who is also vice chairman of the School Board's Budget Committee.

FCPS employees and School Board members plan to make a bus trip to Richmond on Jan. 15 to lobby the General Assembly for additional funding.

Mr. Domenech said a proposal by Gov. James S. Gilmore III for funding retiree health credit could add to the burden of school divisions by forcing them to pick up 45 percent of the program costs. Currently, the program is fully paid for by the state.

The superintendent presented his budget to the School Board last night, and the board is expected to vote on it Feb. 6. The budget will tentatively be presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on April 3.

Mrs. Strauss said the budget had "no surprises," but said she was particularly worried about the deficit in instruction spending.

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