The Fairfax County Public Schools system is facing a massive budget shortfall: $72 million for the 2016 school year. With such a large budget deficit, every tax dollar spent needs to be scrutinized to ensure that it goes toward the classroom, not unnecessary activities.
To fulfill that duty, a budget task force was assembled by Fairfax Superintendent Karen Garza to make recommendations on cuts that would have the least effect on the classroom experience.
Last month, the task force presented to the school board potential cuts and ways to increase revenue to close the budget gap. “No one — including the task force members — wants to enact significant budget reductions that will impact classroom and student programs,” Garza said.
One expenditure of almost $2 million a year could be cut without any effect on the classroom or student programs, but the task force missed it.
Fairfax schools grant government unions a subsidy, known as release time, which allows teachers to perform union business instead of their public duties while being paid by taxpayers. An easy cut for the school system to make without taking anything away from children’s education would be to eliminate release time and put teachers back in the classroom.
Public records requests and calculations made by the Center on National Labor Policy show that Fairfax needed substitute teachers for more than 132,000 hours over a three-year period to cover public employees on release time conducting union activities rather than teaching. During that three-year span, the Center on National Labor Polic estimates release time cost $5.8 million. That means nearly $2 million annually is diverted from the classroom and spent on union activities.
The actual cost of release time could be greater because the unions, not the district, have tracked release time since 2012, although Fairfax policy requires a periodic audit of release-time hours and cost.
Release time is an obvious misuse of public funds — paying for teachers to go to union conferences, lobby government officials and represent employees in grievance procedures. Virginia’s constitution should prohibit this public expenditure.
Virginia’s constitution reads, “Neither the credit of the Commonwealth nor of any county, city, town, or regional government shall be directly or indirectly, under any device or pretense whatsoever, granted to or in aid of any person, association, or corporation.”
That provision is known as the “gift clause” and is present in 47 of 50 state constitutions. Also, there is precedent that release time is unconstitutional.
On Aug. 11, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that release time violated the Arizona constitution’s “gift clause,” which prohibits use of public funds to benefit private parties. The implication of the ruling was simple: Police are paid to protect the public’s safety, not work on union activities.
The same should be true in Virginia. Teachers are paid to teach, not participate in union activities. There is a reason a majority of states have gift clauses in their constitutions: to ensure tax dollars are spent to promote the public good, not to prop up special-interest organizations such as labor unions.
Instead of charging students more for parking passes and athletics or asking the community to pony up more in fees, as the task force suggests, release time should be on the chopping block. Fairfax is already examining how tax dollars are spent. Frivolous expenses such as release time should be the first to go.
Originally posted at the Washington Post.