It didn’t take long for new Fairfax County schools Superintendent Karen Garza to get everyone’s attention.
In her first major move as superintendent, Garza warned School Board members Monday night that major program and staff cuts are needed to address a projected $140 million deficit in the cash-strapped school system’s $2.5 billion budget. The shortfall is due largely to rising health-insurance rates and a sharp increase in student enrollment that is far outpacing new tax revenue.
Given the gargantuan crater she’s staring at, it’s hardly surprising that Garza’s list of potential targets is long and touches virtually every part of the school system. To right the ship, Garza is proposing a host of unpopular options, including an increase in class sizes, cuts to hundreds of administrative and teaching positions, and the elimination of the same “Foreign Language in Elementary Schools” program that sparked a major revolt when first put on the chopping block four years ago.
If Garza’s intention was to wake her constituency up from a deep slumber, she succeeded.
Within hours of Monday’s pronouncement, strong cases were made about the pitfalls of large classrooms and the prospect of transforming Fairfax County’s gold-plated school system into something that more closely resembles bronze or copper.
This is a debate Fairfax County residents know well. Every year brings talk of salary freezes, program cuts, and student participation fees. That’s the new norm in 21st century Fairfax County.
What makes this year a little different is the size of the gap. No matter how skilled the accountant, one doesn’t get to $140 million — or even $50 million — by clipping a couple hundred jobs or charging students $100 for the right to play soccer or join the debate team.
This will likely go beyond a good old-fashioned “needs” vs. “wants” debate. It’s probably safe to assume every “want” item was dealt with two or three years ago. The question now is whether cuts to the “needs” list reach 20 or 200.
In fairness to every parent, student and taxpayer in Fairfax County, every item on Garza’s list — whether it saves $25 million or $25,000 — deserves a thorough vetting.
Concerns about the impact of larger student-teacher ratios are legitimate. Many national studies say the relationship between small class size and increased student achievement is indisputable, especially at the elementary school level. On the other hand, some education experts have argued that class size is less important than the quality of the teacher, curriculum or home environment of the student.
Student-teacher ratios won’t be the only item debated this budget cycle.
When cuts to Fairfax County’s foreign language program were proposed in 2009, a wide range of opinions emerged. More than a few opponents felt the programs were overrated, designed more to impress parents than make 9-year-olds bilingual. Others contend their children have made huge gains in the program and that the language immersion program was one of the main reasons they decided to buy a home in Fairfax.
Over the next several months, those arguments — and dozens of others — will be made once again. Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors will also have to decide whether the prospect of giving salary raises to every teacher (at a cost of $42 million) justifies cutting hundreds of teaching positions and a dozen or so assistant principal jobs. Reducing the number of school counselors and one-day, across-the-board furloughs are also possibilities.
The hope here is that whatever course Fairfax County officials choose to take, it is made after all voices have been heard and is implemented in such a way that one or two parties aren’t asked to bear the brunt of the pain.