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Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Va. District Riled Over Technology-Cut Plan

Va. District Riled Over Technology-Cut Plan

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Daniel A. Domenech is still new to the Washington metropolitan area, but after one year as the superintendent of a suburban Virginia district, he's trying to play the budget process like a fine fiddle.

And he knows a tune that gets people hopping: cutbacks in technology for the classroom.

The proposed $1.24 billion budget that Mr. Domenech handed the Fairfax County school board early this month contained $8 million less for new technology than school officials initially had allocated.

And the $15.8 million that remains is just half the amount called for next year in the district's long-range technology plan.

Parents and local business leaders reacted to the cuts with surprise and dismay. Some suggested that they feared the 156,000-student district was retreating on its drive to blend technology into instruction.

The subject is sensitive because the county, which has many well-educated and technically adept citizens, has pinned much of its future economic growth on Internet and other high-tech industries.

The district has a respectable number of computers by state and national standards--currently one computer for every 3.2 students--but most of those machines are old, and enrollment is growing rapidly. Under the superintendent's proposal, new computer purchases next year would drop from 8,000 to 5,500, and staff training in technology would be scaled back.

Strong Reaction

Daniel A. Domenech

Mr. Domenech's budget proposal and the outcry that followed drew prominent coverage in the local news media. The superintendent said last week that he had expected the reaction. "I was counting on it," he said. "I was hoping that the response intensified."

Fairfax school officials have been lobbying the legislature in Richmond to direct proceeds from the state lottery to local districts or counties, where it could be used on school technology and construction, Mr. Domenech said. "We hope to get the same parents and business folks" who are objecting to his proposed budget cuts to take their objections to state lawmakers, he explained.

If one of the leading lottery proposals is adopted, he said, the school district would reap some $30 million over the next 2 years. Since the 1991 recession, lottery proceeds, which originally were earmarked for school projects, have been poured into the state's general fund.

In framing the proposed budget, Mr. Domenech was constrained by the budget guidelines of the Fairfax County board of supervisors, which allocates property-tax revenue to schools. The board limited the district's budget increase to 4.8 percent this year. Even so, Mr. Domenech proposed a 6.6 percent increase.

In past years, the school board has clashed with the board of supervisors, which supplies most of the district's operating funds, when the school budget has greatly exceeded the budget limit. But there is also a growing consensus in Fairfax County that property taxes cannot keep pace with rising enrollment and other expenses, and that the state must be entreated to pay more.

Playing Politics?

The superintendent said he had no choice but to commit $7.5 million more than in fiscal 1999 in his budget proposal to accommodate the 7,000 new students expected to swell enrollment over a 2-year period. The bulk of that money would be spent to hire new teachers.

He also set aside $25 million to help schools prepare for the Virginia Standards of Learning, a goal that has soared in importance since the first of statewide student testing produced dismal results. Only 6 percent of the district's schools and only 2.2 percent of schools statewide met the tough new requirements for school accreditation set by the state. ("Massive Failure Rates on New Tests Daze Va.," Jan. 20, 1999.)

Concentrating proposed cuts in a popular area such as technology--just as superintendents around the country have long done with sports or music programs--was a deliberate strategy, Mr. Domenech acknowledged.

But some parent and business leaders said that tack amounts to playing politics with the budget.

"We strongly believe this has not been a needs-based budget," said Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, the chairman of the budget committee for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "Our view is that he [should] provide the community with a realistic assessment of the needs, then leave it up to the political forces to match his assessment of needs with the resources."

Edward H. Bersoff, the chief executive officer of BTG Inc., a high-tech company located in the county, agreed. "It was not a great strategy," he said.

But Mr. Bersoff added that the 53-year-old superintendent still has credibility because the district, fiscally speaking, is a tight ship. And he believes Mr. Domenech's gambit might pay off, because the state, he said, may approve shifting lottery proceeds or other revenues to the localities.

Vol. 18, Issue 20, Page 7

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