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SOS -- Save Our Schools

Have we come to grips yet with the budget crises brought on by the subprime/predatory loan crisis? Hardly. That major sucking sound you're hearing is the disappearing tax revenue brought on by falling property values. Its effect on local government services, particularly on school systems, will be felt for years.

Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale's proposed fiscal 2009 budget predicts a shortfall of $100 million. He's doing his job -- for which he's extremely well-compensated -- by making tough decisions. Dale proposes trimming 521 positions to save $40.4 million. He would also raise student activity fees to $50 per activity and axe subsidization of standardized test fees, which together would transfer an additional $5.7 million in budget savings to the pocketbooks of parents and guardians.

You can find the full rundown of the proposed 2009 budget cuts in PDF format on the Fairfax County Public School's Web site.

I'll break out one example near and dear to me -- mostly because my son has been a beneficiary -- the 2009 preschool program proposal. Superintendent Dale's budget would eliminate 118 preschool faculty positions and require teachers to double their workloads. Budget savings: $5.9 million. Loss of quality education for some of the neediest children in the school district: Inestimable. You just can't put a dollar value on it. We could go into the FAPE (free, appropriate public education) debate here, but that would be tangential.

The proposed cuts won't affect my son in preschool because he'll be mainstreaming to kindergarten next year. There, he'll likely face the same budget cuts as every other K-12 student in the county, resulting in fewer teachers, increased class sizes and cuts to necessary services, including cuts of $13.9 million to "streamline" the summer school program.

Because I'm a Fairfax County resident, with two children in the system, I'm focusing on my own backyard in this blog post, but this issue is sure to be felt in jurisdictions across both the D.C. metro area and the nation.

I understand that belts need to be tightened, but why put necessary school personnel and programs on this draconian chopping block? Talk about mortgaging our future.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend a public hearing for the Fairfax County school budget last week, though I've read in The Post that it was standing room only, with vocal opposition to the proposed cuts. That's heartening. I did e-mail my displeasure to my school board representative and other county officials.

So, let's call this what it is, my quixotic crusade to raise awareness. My concern is that we've been blithely underestimating the funding crises' effects on our schools. At least I was. I invite parents and concerned citizens to use this blog today as a forum to help inform and advise one another on what's under consideration now and what surely lies ahead.

Any tips on how to best organize the fight to retain funding for our schools and our children's educations?

By Mike Snyder |  February 12, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Child Development
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I don't necessarily disagree with your points, but it's not enough to rail against spending cuts. If the money's not there, the gov't can't make it appear out of thin air. What other programs or amenities would you propose to cut in place of the ones on the table?

Posted by: Newsahm | February 12, 2008 8:16 AM | Report abuse

Every year, revenues went up. And every year, Fairfax acted like a drunken sailor on shore leave, buying up everything because it had an "inestimable" value and was "for the kids".

This is not a way to run a county.

Posted by: Franconia | February 12, 2008 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I actually think the cuts are reasonable. Unless we want to raise property tax (which wouldn't bother me too much), I don't see how else they will get the money. As I understand it, the kids personnel cuts at the preschool level will not affect your son very much. There may be less aides, a slightly larger class size, and teachers may be required to work some more hours, which might cut into home visits. But do you really need a home visit every month? Maybe every other is fine. Also, I really don't see a problem with a $50 activity fee. Seriously, there should be some fund raising activities that the HS kids could do to help fund underpriviliged kids with their fee but the HS kids could earn the money babysitting, cutting lawns, doing chores to earn that money. It is no biggie. Same with the testing fee. Kids have ipods, cell phones, fancy clothes. If they wanted to play sports, join a team, or take a test badly enough, they can spend their $$ that way. Or more likely, the parents can shell it out. It wouldn't bother me to pay for those things. If the $$ is there, great, I say fund it. But if it isn't, the activity and testing fees are no biggie to cut out.

Posted by: foamgnome | February 12, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

This is the classic "Firemen First" tactic that governments use when facing declining revenues. Instead of trimming or eliminating programs with small constituencies and little total impact, they do either across the board cuts in spending, or focus cuts on programs that have the most impact, like public safety and schools, so as to rile up gullible residents like you and make tax and fee increases more palatable. Since FCPS already accounts for >50% of county spending + all leftover general fund money each fiscal year, the schools could surely find better ways to allocate their substantial resources. But why bother when they can count on foolish parents to lobby for higher taxes for them?

I entreat you to actually wade through the FCPS budget and see how bloated it is, instead of shooting your mouth off and trying to make a very expensive county even more expensive to live in.

Posted by: Christina | February 12, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

"My concern is that we've been blithely underestimating the funding crises' effects on our schools."

I'm sorry, but 'cry me river'. What I hope you're not blithely underestimating is the clear advantage every child in Northern Va has because of the quality of the education they are receiving. You should be thankful every day that your children are able to attend one of the best school districts in America. And even if some programs and funds are denied, oh well, your children will still receive a better education than most children in this country.

Posted by: Willis | February 12, 2008 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I am so glad to see the responses to this very weak arguement to "SOS." Most NOVA schoool budgets have enough bloat in them to sustain the truly important programs.

Cry me a River sounds about right.

Posted by: yesIhavenobananas | February 12, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

My property taxes have certainly not gone down. In fact, my tax assessment has risen by a huge amount, despite the fact that new homes adjacent to me are selling for 50 000 less than they were last year. But apparently new homes don't count. We have already taken my son out of the preschool that we pay for (out of pocket) because we can't afford it any more. We're not poor, but everything seems to cost a lot this year, from gas to milk to heating bills to clothing.

My family and all the families I know are tightening our belts in response to the economic downturn. Why should the school system be exempt?

You say your child was a beneficiary of this preschool program? Was he one of the neediest kids in the district, as you imply?

The argument that these programs are good for our kids, if we take them away it will hurt the kids, etc etc sounds real convincing. But guess what! Families have limited incomes from which to siphon taxes for such programs. Just bleed us dry, why don't you.....

Posted by: middle70 | February 12, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

We are in SWPA and are lucky to be in a great school district. I don't disagree with parents having to pay for testing or activities. If you want your kids to have the best education a $50 fee sounds reasonable. Schools here also subsidise testing, but in most districts that does not happen. People who have lot seem to expect alot more to be handed to them. I have watched kids whose parents can't afford to put food on the table scrape together $100 for an AP exam to help with college scholarships. I am not saying it should be that way, but those aren't ever the people you hear complaining about it.

Posted by: Momof5 | February 12, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

My daughter attends the same high school in Fairfax County where I graduated over 25 years ago. When I step into the building nowadays the first thing that pops into my mind is, Wow! Fairfax County has money to burn! The impressive windowed atrium , marble floors, finely decorated tiled corridors. Then there's the lunchroom where the students sit down in restaurant style booths and for their dining enjoyment, they can watch any of 4 large flat screen plasma TVs...

What was the topic? Oh yeah, budget cuts. Fairfax County. Right.

The thing is, schools by nature are liberal institutions. Fairfax County, by nature of its proximity to DC and the influx of federal dollars is populated by liberals. So what we get are liberals running a liberal institution. Not that there is anything inherently corrupt about this methodoloty, but the financial model is very predictable. Notice the lack of administrators, curiculem specialists, vice chairpersons, and other management positions on the chopping block for budget cuts. Are there any at all? Bloat indeed! When it comes to budget shortfalls, it's not the people at the top of the pay scale that get cut, it's the service providers, namely teachers in this case, that always take the hit.

I think my sons' elementary school is up to 5 principals now. Or maybe that's 1 principal, 2 vice principals, an assistant, and a depudy assistant vice principal, or whatever. I lost track.

But don't worry about saving the schools in Fairfax County. Every local politician here knows that the sure ffire way to raise taxes on its people is to plaster the bond referendum with the word "education". it passes! Every. Single. Time.

Posted by: DandyLion | February 12, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

How about making the parents of special needs kids pay for the teacher resource personnel and testing instead?

Stop taking from the gifted and talented as a solution!

Posted by: Pay $100 for an AP test? | February 12, 2008 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Fairfax County is the richest county in the country. How can you say these are 'the neediest children?' They're living in million dollar McMansions. Get a grip.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

"Fairfax County is the richest county in the country. How can you say these are 'the neediest children?' They're living in million dollar McMansions. Get a grip."

Not entirely true, I work in one of the few high schools in which more than 50% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. Not every school is the same in FCPS even though it may seem that way. There are poor people struggling to make it here, who don't have a lot of extended resources.

I don't have much of an issue with the testing or activity fees either for most students, however, for a full IB Diploma student we are talking about $600 in fees just to take the exams. If they don't take the exams they can't get college credit. I know of many families in my school where this amount of money just isn't possible. I agree that students can probably fundraise or work to make $50 for activities, but the testing fees will keep disadvanted students behind students who have more resources.

Posted by: HS counselor | February 12, 2008 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Agreed with the previous posters here, they are brilliant today. Absolutely nothing to add, great points.

Posted by: StudentMom | February 12, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

More money does not necessarily equal better education, and conversely, less money will not be the end of education as we know it. Look at the school systems of Mississipi and South Carolina, and then tell me that the kids in Fairfax County will truly suffer. More money for schools is always nice, but during times of falling revenues, I believe there is plenty that can be cut without jeopardizing our kids futures.

Posted by: Virginia Mom | February 12, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

You know what else? My four children attend a religious school that I pay for - but Fairfax County still gets the tax money allocated for the schools that my children aren't attending. Why is that? Every year I am mailed a form that claims I am required to fill it out and it states that my local public school will lose money unless they count every single child in the district - whether or not that child will attend the public schools!

Posted by: Evette | February 12, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I see a lot of thoughtful comments with some fine points today. I'll concede that we can agree to disagree in philosophy on taxes and spending.

I would point out that Fairfax County is not all McLean McMansions. Take a drive across county to Hybla Valley some day. I think you'll see where there's need. While some schools may appear posh, there are a lot of schools that are not.

And as far as my son being one of the "neediest" kids in the county, I would never categorize him as such, though I've been extremely grateful for the public program that he benefits from and I think it's a great use of public funding. I do, however, see some of my son's classmates, many with much more severe issues, and some whose parents have little to no means to seek help and treatment outside of public programs. To disregard them and their needs, especially when there is such abundance so nearby, is a travesty, in my opinion.

To each according to his needs. In the case for public education, clearly I can be branded a socialist liberal. I'm fine with that.

Posted by: Mike | February 12, 2008 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with most of the posters about the testing fees. My two chidren attended or still attend Thomas Jefferson HS for Science and Technology. Each of them took 8 AP classes, about the average for TJ students. Paying the test fees for both kids would have been about $1500 total, more than we could easily afford. Many of the students at TJ come from modest backgrounds, and testing fees would be a steep burden for many parents. There is enough room in the budget to reduce other programs rather than eliminating subsidies for testing fees, which would discourage students in all schools from taking AP classes and exams - doesn't Fairfax County pride itself on having a lot of schools high in the Challenge Index ratings?

Posted by: jct | February 12, 2008 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Mike - "socialist liberal"? Nobody called you that. Instead of addressing our points, you are creating a straw man that is easier for you to knock down. Nobody here called you that or implied that in the least. We are saying that you should take the time to think through the motives of the school board. Apparently that is too much work for you. That might make you intellectually lazy, but it does not make you a "socialist liberal."

jct - the "challenge index" is a load of horse poo. It ranks schools based on the number of AP classes that students take - not how they do on the test, not if they even take the EXAM! And they give GPA bonus points to students for simply enrolling in the classes, to make the school ratings look better. My mother was a FFX Co teacher and AP exam proctor, and every year she would have stories about students bringing in pillows to the AP exams and napping through them. Some wouldn't even open the test booklets. Why should they? The school has what it wants - a high "challenge index rating." The kid has what they want - parents off their back and a GPA boost. Everybody wins ...

Posted by: To Mike and jct | February 12, 2008 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I have to agree with many of the posters. Your son has 15 children in his class? Mine Kindergarten-aged son in DCPS has 24 and this is in Ward 2.

I understand you don't want programs cut for children, but I read some of the testimony of that meeting. The couple who need their high-school aged son dropped off at home struck me as a bit unreasonable. I mean, he's in high school, he can't walk from his local elementary school?

That said, I know I'm being bitter and petty. It's cold today and I have to ride the bus with my feverish toddler to pick up my 6 and 8 year old sons from their DCPS in a few hours. My boys have no shot at a school bus unless they fall and hit their heads. Hard.

On the bright side, this is one of the few DC public schools that has a working furnace. It's just all rainbows and unicorns here in our Nation's capitol...

Posted by: threeboysindc | February 12, 2008 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Many local governments in this area have been on spending sprees. They are no different from most of us - when they have money they spend it on anything.

It will not hurt them to spend a few years using up the things they've already bought.

Lobbying to raise taxes will only drive jobs away and let these governments continue to buy things that may or may not actually be useful to them.

The situation in the District of Columbia is slightly different in that they are incapable of managing their facilities. For all the money that is spent on education these schools should have working furnaces.

Pouring more funds into a system that does not use the money they have properly is a waste.

Posted by: RoseG | February 12, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

No offense guys, but property tax is low in VA. Try living in some other states like NY. You will see what expensive property taxes are. The % of tax on assessed property in No.VA is low. It is the value of the homes that have sky rocketed. Not the tax placed on the value of the house.

Posted by: Too expensive? | February 12, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Where is the "$100 million shortfall"? If you look at the full proposal, it predicts revenue of $2.21 billion and and expenditures of $2.26 billion. That's a $50 million difference, not $100 million.

It also appears to be at least a 1% increase over the previous year (the proposal itself calls it a 3.3% increase, which I don't fully understand). It provides for raises to teachers' salaries of about 6%. To refer to budget "cuts" seems a bit ... incomplete.

And picking through the detailed budget numbers is endless fun. At the same time that they are cutting preschool faculty positions to save $5.9 million, they are increasing the budget for "Office Assistant Personnel" by $3.9 million and "Custodian" by $3.2 million.

Posted by: Tom T. | February 12, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

To TJHS parent: Seriously, they are making cuts across the board. Do you think only the gifted and talented should not have cuts? I don't understand why a HS student can not earn $1500 in full academic year to pay for his/her own testing fee. One of the issues with special education (at any age) is it is a right. While GT is not a right but a benefit. I think if you disagree with this, you should talk to your congressmen. And HS students can't take public transportation? They do all over NYC and their five burroughs.

Posted by: foamgnome | February 12, 2008 12:23 PM | Report abuse

What is disappointing about this discussion is that no one is talking about one of the most frustrating aspects of public education today - the lack of meaningful alternatives for individual children.

My daughter is in the first grade in a "good" Prince William County school, but the school is not meeting her needs very well because even my local elementary school is a huge bureaucracy that requires tremendous time and administrative efforts just to move a child from one class to another.

Why not allow individual schools to create more innovative approaches to educating individual children and apply similarly innovative ways of more effectively using finances? Charter schools, tuition tax credits, more magnet schools, or vouchers all encourage schools to reduce non-instructional overhead and meet the needs of individual children. I don't much care how my choices are expanded, but I currently have one viable option - my local public elementary school. If that school doesn't meet my child's needs (and I have several children, each of whom learn differently), home schooling or outrageously expensive private schools are the only alternatives. That to me is absurd when we spend as much money as we do educating each child, and get thoroughly mediocre results (in the best schools). Does anyone believe that in the 21st century, this is the best we can do? That these schools are preparing our children for the future they will face?

My daughter is extremely bright and was already bored the first week of first grade (not because of her attention span but because she wasn't challenged) and she continues to be treated as a member of a class, not as an individual child capable of learning at her own pace.

Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and hoping our schools will more efficiently use our tax dollars and better prepare our children for the future while keeping an outdated centralized bureaucratic structure in place seems like insanity to me.

Posted by: DL | February 12, 2008 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Please, some parents get their kids coded as special needs just so they can get extra resources, needed or not. It's a huge burden on everyone.

And the gifted do have a right to be educated to their ability, not left to waste while ADD Johnny can't control himself.

Posted by: Too many special needs | February 12, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I think one good thing would be to finally go digital on the basic classes. Multiple classes in multiple schools taught by fewer teachers. Get kids used to the large auditorium setting/personal responsibility early.

Though I heavily emphasize BASIC classes/testing crap.

Posted by: Liz D | February 12, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse

I think one good thing would be to finally go digital on the basic classes. Multiple classes in multiple schools taught by fewer teachers. Get kids used to the large auditorium setting/personal responsibility early.

Though I heavily emphasize BASIC classes/testing crap.

Posted by: Liz D | February 12, 2008 02:26 PM

How old are you talking Liz D - a high school senior - sure, a 7th grader - you are asking for way to much for to many of them.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 12, 2008 3:38 PM | Report abuse

HS counselor - FCPS still plans to pay for tests for disadvantaged students (those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch).

jct - If TJHS parents feel that paying $84 out-of-pocket per AP test is too much of a burden to bear for the college credit their children receive from passing those tests, parents can always have their children opt out of taking some or all of the tests.

Posted by: MBA Mom | February 12, 2008 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Some good comments here. I'm in GA - where we throw tons of money around, yet have overall a substandard system. BUT the district *I'm* in is great (great teachers, administrators, but MOST OF ALL - parents who are involved).

BUT realistically - I HAVE SCHOOL CHOICE. My child, in kindergarten, is in public school. and I could live almost wherever I wanted to - so I can choose which public school to go to. My concern is for those who do not get to choose as much as I can.

Drunken sailor indeed! One reason we are having real estate crises here (WE ARE NUMBER ONE! in foreclosures) is that the real estate was so crazy. The city council was trying to convince us that revenues were only going up a few percentage points, but that is most certainly a lie. Couldn't be any other way (oh, how nice of them to lower the rate a tad when your assessment just doubled...).

We haven't had the cry of the problems withrevenues yet = we just passed ANOTHER percentage sales tax going to the school - but I guess we will, given what's happening in the market here.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | February 12, 2008 9:47 PM | Report abuse

i am new to fairfax county, so i'm still reeling at the home prices and what i can only imagine must be the tax base from which the school system draws its revenue. knowing what i do about the population here (in terms of its own education level and average income) i tend to agree that it's not yet time to sound the "Crisis alarm" on FCPS. the real crisis is in places like my hometown, cleveland ohio. cuyahoga county is now the foreclosure capital of the country, where the cleveland public schools were already failing, and now entire city blocks are nearly empty, with houses are boarded up and stripped of their siding by gangs that terrorize the few remaining residents. businesses run by generations of family members are gone, and cohesive neighborhoods with their own unique histories and populations have vanished. that is the real damage of the subprime disaster, and its economic impact on places like cleveland will be truly devastating.

Posted by: | February 13, 2008 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Believe it or not, there are working poor residents in Fairfax County who don't have the luxury to live in million dollar mansions.

Give me a break all of you!!!

Posted by: workingpoor | February 26, 2008 11:34 PM | Report abuse

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