FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Parents, teachers, and administrators rallied Thursday night in what could be the start of a brewing budget battle for Fairfax County Schools.
"We're just not going to take cuts anymore," says Kevin Hickerson, the President-Elect of the Fairfax Education Association, a teachers' union.
"We've had nine years of cuts, consecutively," says Melanie Meren, a mother of two. "We don't want to talk about cuts anymore, and we're trying to make this a game-changing year."
The game changer?
Superintendent Karen Garza is proposing a $2.7 Billion budget that includes salary increases, and no program cuts.
"You are the key to solving this daunting challenge," she told a packed auditorium of parents and teachers at Luther Jackson Elementary School.
"It's a shame that every year we go and ask to be fully funded, and then the board of supervisors says nope, here's all you get," said Carla Okouchi, an elementary school music teacher.
Garza's new budget is the largest in the district's history.
It includes one-percent raises for teachers, and a $40-million dollar fund for future salary investment.
But not everyone is buying into the plan--- at least not without further inspection.
"It's a lot of money," said Pat Herrity, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We clearly always have room to look for efficiencies and reductions."
That Board, which funds seventy-seven percent of the Fairfax Schools budget, will largely decide how much money the district gets.
Board members have good reason to watch the numbers carefully: fifty-three percent of the County budget is used for education funding.
"We have that every year, and our school system's not falling through the center of the earth," Herrity said.
Right now, the average teacher salary in Fairfax is about $68,000 a year.
Add insurance, retirement, and other benefits, and that number rises to $96,000.
But teachers are still leaving.
"There are many teachers and many employees that are leaving and going to other counties because of the better salaries," Hickerson said.
Salaries are not the only issue.
Supporters of Garza's budget argue without the needed funding, the district will face a $50-million deficit.
They point out the Fairfax system spends $1000 less for every student, adjusting for inflation, than it did eight years ago.
"My family will be absolutely willing to pay more in taxes," said Trish Vanstory, a mother of four. "But we would also like more returned to us from the state."
"We can understand the concern, to not just focus on real estate tax. We need to diversify our funding base to survive," Meren said.
If the district receives everything it wants, the cost will be an additional $122-million.
That's money for programs that might be considered luxuries in other districts.
A segment of Fairfax's 188,000 students are youngsters in need, for example.
"We provide them with their meals, many of them do not have their own shelter," Okouchi said. "Our school goes out of the way to provide food as well as clothing, gifts over the holidays."
The budget process will stretch into the Spring, with a series of public hearings, before a Board of Supervisors vote in May.
Vanstory hopes the enrichment side of education won't be lost in the money debate.
She says it was the district's unique programs in music, drama, and the arts, that persuaded her family to move to the area.
"My fourth grader has just taken up viola," she saif. "And for the first time ever, she is happy and excited to practice an instrument every day. And that is at risk."