Kevin Hickerson has taught in Fairfax County Public Schools for a decade, but this year is the first he's realized he may need to change careers if he wants to continue to live here and make ends meet.
The special education teacher at Chantilly High School was one of 11 speakers at a school board budget hearing Tuesday, many of whom asked board members to better compensate teachers and other employees before the system loses its edge — and their educators — to other jurisdictions.
The issue is one Superintendent Jack Dale highlighted earlier this month in his $2.5 billion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2014, a spending plan $62.7 million larger than last year's budget but one that also hinges on a 5.5 percent increase ($92.4 million) in funding from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Tuesday's hearing came in advance of the board's advertised budget work session Thursday. The board will adopt the advertised budget Feb. 7, at which point it will advance to county supervisors.
Though compensation makes up about 88 percent of Dale's budget, the plan only calls for a 1 percent market scale adjustment for all teachers next year; it lacks step increases or other potential raises officials had considered in a fiscal forecast last fall.
The adjustment, which will cost about $18.9 million, isn’t enough to keep Fairfax from lagging behind neighboring jurisdictions in teacher salaries. Speakers like Hickerson said in reality, teachers face an even bleaker picture than those comparisons paint, because take-home pay — after accounting for benefits and increasing contributions to state and county retirement systems — is much lower.
"I always thought I could overcome it but this is the first year the fiscal burdens would outweigh what it is to be an employee here," Hickerson said.
To afford a two-bedroom apartment, a county resident's annual income needs to be about $60,000, Fairfax Education Association President Michael Hairston said — "well above the means of thousands of FCPS employees."
"Over and over the issues that surface most often are respect and workload. What do these have to do with the budget? Everything. If you respect the work that someone does, you compensate them fairly for their work," Hairston said. "For a high-performing system such as this... this is unacceptable."
Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steve Greenburg asked the $6.5 million earmarked by Dale for extra teacher time — which amounts to one additional day at the end of the year — instead be distributed across all employees' salaries.
He also suggested strategies like mid-year step increases, among others, as a way to help the issue.
Some speakers detailed the struggles faced by other system employees, like custodians, bus drivers and food service workers.
FEA's Angela Almond said 350 such employees are not making a living wage.
Cornelius Streeter, an FCPS building supervisor, said the board but those positions have yet to be filled.
And while support employees "might not teach the children, if not for us, teaching would be next to impossible," Almond added.
Other issues speakers addressed included eliminating Monday early dismissal for elementary school students, later start times and the role and function of the system's annual budget as a whole.
Advocate Michele Menapace said "the budget has become a policy-setting and decision-making document rather than a means to implement long-range, well-developed plans debated by this board and the public."
"Strategic governance is not strategic planning," she continued. "Monitoring reports provide an assessment of work accomplished during a monitoring period. They do not guide multi-year plans of program development or related budgetary impacts. Essentially, the public knows where you've been, but has no idea where FCPS is going."
To see video of speakers' testimonies, click the media player at right.
Enrollment Drives $2.5 B Schools Budget
Leaders Worry Fairfax Teacher Pay Won't Be Competitive
Fairfax Schools Face Nearly $150M Deficit in 2014