Tremendous Needs Still Not Funded in Fairfax County

School Board adopts $3.2 billion budget seeking $172.2 million increase.

"I am happy to see the Superintendent's Proposed FY 21 budget focuses on many of the things I feel strongly about, such as increasing our student health and wellness efforts, workforce development, market competitive compensation for our teachers and instructional assistants, and serving our special needs families. Adding money for activity directors, counselors, on-time graduation coordinators, substance abuse prevention specialists and behavior intervention specialist training can make sure we are providing students and families some of the supports they need to be successful. Our Trades for Tomorrow program is just one way to make sure we are providing students with the opportunity to enter our Northern Virginia workforce, and I would like to see that expanded," said Elaine Tholen, Fairfax County School Board Member, Dranesville District.

During the Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, School Board Meeting, the FY 21 budget for Fairfax County Public Schools reached a key milestone on its pathway to final approval by the Board of Supervisors in May. The Board approved a motion to adopt the Advertised Budget of $3.2 billion, which represented an increase of $172.2 million, or 5.8 percent, over the FY 20 Approved Budget. The motion carried unanimously with School Board Representatives Karen Corbett Sanders, Chair (Mount Vernon), Tamara Derenak Kaufax, Vice-Chair (Lee), Elaine Tholen (Dranesville), Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), Melanie K. Meren (Hunter Mill), Karl Frisch (Providence), Stella Pekarsky (Sully), Ricardy Anderson (Mason), Rachna Sizemore Heizer (Member-at-Large), Abrar Omeish (Member-at-Large) and Karen Keys-Gamarra (Member-at-Large) voting yes. School Board Representative, Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield), was absent.

MCLAUGHLIN introduced the motion. "I'm hopeful the Board of Supervisors will consider full funding for this Fiscal Year 21 budget… Later on, we will be discussing the amendments that so many of the board members have brought. It simply reflects the fact that there are tremendous needs that have still not been able to be funded due to the recent recession," she said.

While Sizemore Heizer agreed with the tenor of the budget and its themes in terms of staff support and serving the school system's "neediest kids," she wanted to make sure the Board first focused on supporting all its students and staff. "That should be the primary focus," she said. For Anderson, "all of it" was important. "It's just a matter of how to balance our needs with our finite resources," she said. McLaughlin said that the budget represented the Superintendent and his team's best thinking and would put them "on a good path forward."

"I've highlighted my priorities and will be sending in amendments when we look at this again. I just want to put in another plug for…the importance of identifying areas of savings and reapportioned means of our funds to give us confidence in the budget we are moving forward with. I would have loved to have had that in advance of tonight's vote," said Omeish. Although the Approved Budget for the School Operating Fund represented an increase over the FY 20 Budget, it came as little surprise. According to the 2021 Budget forecast presented by Fairfax County Public Schools representatives on Nov. 26, 2019, to a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board, expenses had continued to increase and the School Board budget needed to address Board and community priorities and school enrollment growth.

The FY 21 Approved Budget purposefully aligned with four stated Strategic Plan Goals. The most significant investment, $1.7 billion or 54 percent of the budget supported Strategic Plan Goal 1: Student Success, to reach, challenge, and prepare every student for success in school and life. The largest changes from FY 20 included funding for enrollment and student demographics at $28.8 million and centralized instructional resources at $9.4 million.

The second most significant investment, $917.3 million or 29 percent of the budget supported Strategic Plan Goal 3: Premier Workforce. The largest changes from FY 2020 included step increases for eligible employees at $50.1 million and a market competitive compensation scale adjustment of 1 percent at $25.3 million. The FY 21 budget also included a Classroom Instructional Support (CIS) salary scale enhancement at $2.7 million for the second year of a three-year plan to bring the salaries of instructional assistants and public health training assistants to 50 percent of teacher salaries in the salary scale for teachers with a bachelor's degree.

The approved budget allocated $601.6 million for special education, an increase of 7.5 percent over the FY 20 Approved Budget to support nearly 1000 additional special education students by funding teachers, assistants and attendants. It also included multiple special education and preventive investments. A total of $3.5 million was allocated to elementary special education chair positions at elementary schools with large special education populations and $0.9 million for substance abuse prevention positions.

"In FY 20, we completed a multi-year plan to bring teacher salary scales to the market average," said Dr. Scott S. Brabrand, division superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. "The proposed FY 21 budget continues to prioritize market competitive compensation for our teachers and staff. My goal is to have FCPS leading the way in teacher compensation in our region. We recognize that teachers have the power to change lives and deserve salaries commensurate with the critical work they do each day in our classrooms. Our focus is achieving success for each of our more than 189,000 students, and that can only be accomplished by ensuring that we have the ability to recruit and retain the very best teachers," he said.

In a separate action, the Board also approved a motion to defer consideration of all budget amendments to the April 30 and May 14, 2020 work sessions as well as additional meetings as they became available before the Board took its final action on the budget for May 21, 2020. McLaughlin introduced the motion and provided the first comment. "Our Fairfax County family knows this Board was recently seated together just a little over 30 days ago. When you are looking at a $3.2 billion budget and a board of 12 that are so deeply dedicated to ensuring that this budget spends the money in the most effective and efficient manner possible to meet the needs of each and every child and also honor our hard-working employees, it will take more time for this Board to review over the next several months what are the various areas of funding priorities different board members would like to propose," she said.

McLaughlin said passage of the amendment meant that the Board would be able to revise and change any portion of the Advertised Budget before the final vote on May 21. "It is not restricted simply to the $6 million line item for staffing initiatives. Instead, board members can continue to propose budget questions and additional amendments beyond those submitted tonight. Currently, we have 23 proposed amendments that have been posted to board docs... "I know you've spent countless hours looking through this incredibly complex budget to try and determine again how do we honor our students and employees in the best manner possible," she said. McLaughlin added she looked forward to continued conversations on school nurses, middle school start times, class size relief, substitute pay, challenges in attracting substitutes and equitable pay raises for Fairfax County Public School employees that mirror county government employees. "We are one Fairfax family. I feel it's going to be extremely important that whatever pay raises the county executive to determine through the revenue can be afforded to county employees. I hope they will recognize and honor that same amount of funding needs to be identified and provided to the school system so we can honor our same hard-working employees," she said.

Anderson said that as they continued to t look at the budget and talk about priorities, she would bring to this work, the lens she brought to her previous work. "How do we advance all of our groups; how do we balance finite resources again to advance every single stakeholder that we have, students, teachers and all of the other groups ... I'm also looking forward to having some conversations regarding equity. For me, that is the lens through which I take a look at this budget. How do we ensure that we are closing the gaps wherever they exist," Anderson said referencing future discussions on the amendments.

Frisch asked for clarification if, during the future work sessions, they would be able to discuss program budgets as well the advertised budget. Sanders said that the Board would be having a retreat on March 9. "Strategic Plan and individual programs will be reviewed with the board so that we can take a deeper dive on how each of the individual programs contributes towards the strategic objectives and provide you with the opportunity to influence that going forward," Sanders said.

AMONG ITS FINAL ACTIONS, the Board approved a motion in a vote of 9-2 related to the budget introduced by Meren. It directed the Superintendent to update the security plan to include a plan for installing vestibules in schools providing secured visitor access space where none currently existed by April 30, 2020. During the discussion, Pekarsky said she would not be able to support this at this time unless she had an idea of the monetary. Keys-Gamarra said, "We had extensive conversation with our security review, and as I recall these vestibules were part of that, so I am not understanding why we need this, particularly, when it is not in this year's budget, and we don 't even know how much money we are talking about."

Vice-Chair Derenak Kaufax said she was "still very much struggling; that this was a capital improvement plan putting vestibules in a school for security," and how did that equate putting in this budget. Marty Smith, Chief Operating Officer Fairfax County, said, "When we look to any changes to our buildings we think of those as renovations to our buildings. But the CIP is for overall building renovations, and the CIP is used for new construction. So, when we look at these types of renovations to buildings we have used operating funds in the past to support these types of renovations, while it has an impact on our facilities, it's not necessarily coming from the same funding stream."

"We are not committing funds, we are asking for a plan," said Chair Sanders. According to boarddocs.com, the approved amended motion read, “…move approval of a follow-on motion to direct the Superintendent to bring an update of the security plan to include a plan for installing vestibules in schools to provide secured visitor access space where none currently exists by April 30, 2020. Specifically, compile data about the frequency of schools having entryway vestibules that serve as security checkpoints before visitors gain access to areas with students; compared with schools that, due to design features, allow visitors to cross open space or hallways before checking in to the main office. The plan will include the timeline and cost to outfit all schools with needed vestibules or improvements that will create visitor holding spaces before entering spaces where students are.” McLaughlin, Anderson, Meren, Sizemore Heizer, Tholen, Sanders, Keys-Gamarra and Omeish, Frisch voted yes. Derenak Kaufax and Pekarsky voted no.

"As a board, we have a lot that we want to accomplish. In the weeks ahead, we hope to gain a better understanding of what we can anticipate in state aid and what the transfer will be from Fairfax County,” said Tholen.

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