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Fairfax School Budget Includes $2 Million to Reduce McLean Class Sizes

Class sizes were a major issue in last year's tough school board race.

The proposed Fairfax County schools budget contains $2 million to shrink  elementary school class sizes in McLean and Great Falls, the Dranesville school board representative told a citizens committee this week.

Jane Strauss, Dranesville school board member and chair of the school board, joined Dranesville Supervisor John Foust at the annual joint meeting of the Education Committee and the Budget and Taxation Committee of the McLean Citizens Association to discuss the proposed budget.

Foust reiterated his belief that the Board of Supervisors will not approve the school superintendent's request for a nine percent increase in the schools proposed budget  of $2.4 billion.

"I don’t see them going to 9 percent," Foust said. "I think that’s very optimistic for Dr. Dale.” Jack Dale is the outgoing Fairfax schools superintendent. “This is not a year to ask for a 9 percent increase. “

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approves a lump sum of money to help finance the schools which is 53 percent of the county's general fund. The school board has final approval of the county schools budget.

Elementary class sizes in McLean and Great Falls became a major issue during last year's hard-fought school board race between Strauss and school activist Louise Epstein.

Class sizes are somewhat larger in rich areas like McLean and Great Falls because the Fairfax schools apportion money based on the needs of the students. The more students who are poor, receive free lunches and don't speak English, the more money and teachers a school receives.

Minority students are now a majority of Fairfax school students. Poorer students are an increasingly larger portion of student enrollment as poverty becomes an growing issue in Fairfax County. Epstein argued for abolition of the needs-based formula.

The $2 million fund which represents 26 teaching positions "will not be robbed to do something else,” Strauss told the 25 folks attending the joint committee.

The average elementary school class should have about 25 students, she said. Some school principals may elect use teachers, paid for by the $2 million, to have smaller classes  in the lower grades and balance that with larger classes in higher grades, Strauss explained.

"We would like to keep everyone below 30," she said.

4 Other Headlines from the Meeting

1.The biggest increases in the proposed budget according to Strauss are:

  • $45 million to pay for increased enrollment. 
  • $48 million to pay for a two percent pay increase for school employes.
  • $66 million to pay into the Virginia Retirement System. The county has already set aside that money so it's already there.

2.The county's birthrate is up and “that is the largest driver of increased school enrollment," Strauss said. “We registered the largest kindergarten class ever.”

3. John Foust said the county executive hopes to include a 5 percent increase for the schools in the county budget to be released next month.

4. Foust raised the question of fairness of salaries between county employes and school employes.

"Last year, effective July 1, FCPS employees received a 1% cost of living increase and over 2%, on average, step increase. County employees only received a 2% across the board increase starting in October," Foust said.

"This year the FCPS proposed budget includes a 2% cost of living increase and over 2%, on average, step increase. The County Executive’s advertised budget has not been released but he has said that, at most, the county might be able to fund a 3% increase for county employees this year.

"The Board of Supervisors feels there should be some equity between the way school employees and county employees are treated." Foust said.

 Next step: School board will hold public hearings on the superintendent's proposed budget.

Bob January 20, 2012 at 12:30 PM
But will Strauss follow through? If Supervisors deny an increase, will Strauss follow through on her campaign promise and reduce class size? It's not enough to say, as she does in this article, "We would LIKE TO have everyone below 30." It would be nice to have our "leader" say she would make it happen no matter what. That's what a representative does - fights for the people and their interests for the district she is supposed to represent.
Louise Epstein January 20, 2012 at 12:39 PM
Bobbie, Thanks for your continued coverage of school issues. It appears that this proposal may just be a small band-aid, rather than a systemic fix of the problem. These 26 positions also can be used by middle or high schools, which sometimes have excessively large class sizes. They are not just for McLean and Great Falls. Schools in Vienna, Oakton, Fairfax Station, and other neighborhoods also get too-few teachers under the current staffing formulas. A related issue is whether the process of allocating staffing reserve positions is sufficiently transparent. When schools with similar demographics end up with different average class sizes year after year, it raises questions about the integrity of that process.
Louise Epstein January 20, 2012 at 12:46 PM
One last clarification. I did not advocate for the abolition of needs-based staffing, just an adjustment of those formulas. I suggested that FCPS eliminate central staff positions. The savings from these cuts could be used to reduce the range of average class sizes within FCPS, without necessarily increasing the average class size in the schools that benefit the most from the current staffing formula.
Kathy Keith January 20, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Has anyone been able to do a true audit of the FCPS central staff? I am under the impression that some of them are identified as "school-based" because they are "instructional support". If this is the case, are these people used in the ratio of teacher to student for the county? Also, is class size available on FCPS website? All I can find is the number of students per grade the number of instructional staff. However, the instructional staff is not divided by grade or specialty.

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