Fairfax City will have to contend with a substantial hike in school tuition costs next year thanks to an increase in the number of students attending city schools and Fairfax County budget woes.
The preliminary tuition estimate from Fairfax County Public Schools for fiscal year 2013 sits at $43.3 million, an increase of $6 million over this year. For perspective, last year's bill only cost $1 million more than the previous bill.
School officials stress that this is only an estimate and subject to change as the county goes through its budget process.
"These are very first estimates in uncertain times," said Superintendent Ann Monday at the Dec. 6 council meeting.
Fairfax County's track record in sticking to its estimates gives the city reason to worry. FCPS didn't tell Fairfax City it owed .
Why the Hike?
One reason is that more students are attending Fairfax City schools.
"This year we have the largest number of kindergarten students in a decade," said Monday. Fairfax County claims the city can expect 85 more students next year, though Monday thinks there will be more.
"If we budgeted for 100 students, that alone would cost us over $1 million," she said.
The increase in school-aged children comes from the way families are reacting to the recession. More families are doubling up in homes and renting to cut costs. Fewer are leaving the area because they don't have the money to move. Fairfax is also seeing an increase in the number of hispanic and asian families, which tend to have more children.
And more families with young children are moving into Fairfax City's older neighborhoods as seniors realize they can no longer afford to live in their homes.
The stumbling economy is putting pressure on the county budget as well. Fairfax County is expecting 4,000 more students next year. Its initial estimate says the county's operating costs will increase by about $300 million.
Fairfax City starts its annual school budget process weeks earlier than Fairfax County. FCPS Superintendent Jack Dale won't introduce his budget until later this month. City schools staff will get an amended estimate throughout the winter until the council adopts its final 2013 Fairfax City Budget in April.
Need to Find Money Now
But cost-cutting can't wait.
In addition to a hike in the FY2013 bill, Fairfax City owes an additional $1 million in school fees this year. FCPS' mid-year estimate showed an increase of $100 million in operating costs for FY2012.
In seven out of the last 10 years, the county estimated more than the actual cost of operating city schools. In those years, the city received money back from the county after the final bill was calculated.
Schools staff budgeted about $400,000 for a FY2012 mid-year increase. Fairfax City needs to come up with the remaining $600,000 from better-than-expected revenues or cuts.
Mayor Rob Lederer urged the council to start looking for ways to identify revenue sources and cut costs now, instead of waiting for later in the budget process.
"The soooner we get ahead of that, I think the better off the system is," he said. "I hope we'll look at it that way and not just how do we get out of today's $600,000 issue."
Councilman Dan Drummond suggested a brighter look at the city's student enrollment and budget issues.
"New families are coming to our neighborhoods, that to me is a good story to tell," he said. "We obviously have a budget situation to grapple with but I think in terms of the investment to our community, the fact the kids are here is certainly something that we want to promote."
Check Patch for more budget information as it becomes available.