A Year Later, Bluer Skies for Fairfax County Schools: Superintendent Karen Garza Uses Collaboration and Financial Skills to Move District Forward

By Whitmer, Regina | District Administration, July 2014 | Go to article overview

A Year Later, Bluer Skies for Fairfax County Schools: Superintendent Karen Garza Uses Collaboration and Financial Skills to Move District Forward


Whitmer, Regina, District Administration


When Superintendent Karen Garza started her job at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia last July, she had barely unpacked when she found a perfect storm of budget planning: increased enrollment, deferred retirement system contributions and a major uptick in students needing ESOL services.

Undaunted, the Texas native set out to find facts and information that helped shape a $2.5 billion spending plan the community could support.

While it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing--the final budget was cut more deeply than Garza wanted--the new superintendent will continue to gather input from others as she finds solutions. "Everything I take to the board has been shaped by input I've received from about 100 groups I've met with to discuss the challenges we are facing," Garza says. "I try to allow people affected by decisions to have some say in the process. It helps us make better decisions."

Synergy

Synergism is a hallmark of Garza's leadership, and one that's gotten high marks from both the school board that hired her and the county Board of Supervisors that provides more than 70 percent of the district's funding, school board Chairman Ilryong Moon says.

"She has worked so hard with all the stakeholders," Moon says. "Even supervisors who disagreed with the superintendent expressed how they appreciated her openness and willingness to engage them in the budget process, and how she was very open to their suggestions."

Garza says this input was especially welcome in grappling with Fairfax's financial situation. Enrollment has grown an average of 1.7 percent a year since 2010, an increase of 15,000 students. During the same period, the need for ESOL services increased nearly 9 percent each year. And the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has risen 4.5 percent annually to 28 percent.

Enrollment in the wealthy district is expected to reach 200,000 students by 2020 and is already home to families speaking more than 100 languages, Chief Financial Officer Susan Quinn says.

"Right off the bat, (Garza) knew we'd have significant budget challenges," Quinn says. The cost of enrollment growth, shifting demographics and fixed costs--such as retirement system payments that must be made after being deferred starting in 2010--are outpacing revenue growth, Quinn says.

"Instead of just going to the Board of Supervisors and asking for more money, Dr. Garza approached this as a shared responsibility," Quinn says. "We made reductions of $96 million, comparable to what we requested from the county."

In the end, the county increased school funding by $51.5 million--$46.6 million less than Garza requested--while the state is expected to provide Fairfax another $30 million more than expected. It left the district with a $16.6 million gap that was closed, in part, by delaying step increases for teachers until later in the year.

The budget also eliminated more than 720 positions--some through attrition--and increased class sizes, but by only one student larger than this year. The money saved will fund raises that will begin to bring salaries in line with nearby districts that have lured teachers away from Fairfax, Garza says.

Additional money will be saved through reorganizing principals and other administrators "to better align our systems, improve our decision making and facilitate stronger and more differentiated support of our schools," Garza told staff.

Education in her blood

The daughter of a now-retired college English professor, Garza knew she would go into education. …

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