F.C. Schools Told to Cut More $ In Council Bid to Avoid Tax Hike

School Board Won’t Budge On Request

Falls Church School Board chair Craig Cheney, in forceful remarks to the News-Press yesterday, said the only thing his board will bring to a showdown meeting with the City Council tonight is a defense of its standing budget request for the new fiscal year.

The Council, led by Mayor Robin Gardner, gave direction at its last meeting to both City Manager Wyatt Shields and the School Board to report tonight on what the impact would be if the Council cut another $300,000 out of the Fiscal Year 2008 budget.

Gardner expressed the hope the Council could lower the residential real estate tax rate by a penny of assessed value from what Shields recommended last month. She said the goal would be to keep the rate at its current $1.01 per $100 of assessed valuation.

But the reaction to this from Shields, who works at the pleasure of the Council, and the independent, elected all-volunteer School Board, has been markedly different.

While Shields reported to the News-Press yesterday that he may propose saving about $100,000 by financing, rather than buying outright, new vehicles needed by the police department and City departments, Cheney and the School Board are in no mood for such budget tinkering.

“We will listen, but we are planning to continue to defend the budget we submitted,” Cheney said of Thursday’s joint work session with the Council. “This School Board totally supports the current budget.”

The work session will commence at 7 p.m. tonight in the Council chambers of City Hall. In an effort to provide the public with ample opportunity to respond, the Council will hold an extraordinary public hearing this Monday from 6 to 8 p.m. prior to trying to put the finishing touches on its FY08 budget.

The final vote of approval on the $70 million-plus budget will come a week from Monday, on April 23, at the Council’s regular business meeting. Between now and then will be tonight’s work session, Monday’s extended public hearing and work session, and perhaps another work session next Thursday if needed.

Of course, the Council could change its mind right up until the decisive April 23 vote. The budget will be operative for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“I certainly think our current budget proposal is right for the schools,” Cheney said. “We are making up $300,000 in lost state and federal revenue and have carefully targeted our salary and compensation fixes to maintain our competitiveness in attracting and retaining quality educators. At the same time, we’ve eliminated 1.7 positions and did not give the teachers and staff what they asked for in cost-of-living increases.”

Cheney also cited a recent article in a regional daily about the intense competition now underway among area jurisdictions for the best teachers.

The City Council cannot make its own adjustments to any school budget except to change the amount it is willing to contribute from the City’s general fund. Cheney suggested that if it expects the School Board to offer up its own new request for a lower net amount, then it might be disappointed.

“The decision on how much to fund us is the Council’s decision,” he said. “Our role is to let the Council know how much is needed to maintain the quality of the schools.”
He added that not only everyone on the School Board, but the organizations representing the teachers, staff and students also fully back the existing School Board funding request.

Last month, Shields folded the School Board request into his staff projections of the needs for operating the City government, and of revenue projections for the coming fiscal year.

The City being overwhelmingly dependent on taxes from residential real estate, with the recent years’ sharp rise in values fizzling out this year to almost zero, the slowed revenue stream compelled Shields, he explained, to recommend a one-cent rise in the real estate tax rate, the first increase in five years.

He was able to hold the proposed increase, however, to one cent, which translates into revenue for the City into about $350,000.

Since his recommendations, the City has learned it will get about $50,000 more than first anticipated from the state, meaning that it needs to find an extra $300,000 if it wants to keep the tax rate even, or to cut $300,000 from Shields’ proposal.

There are other, smaller programs in jeopardy with this budget, including a $50,000 contribution to the fledgling but promising Falls Church Education Foundation and continued high rate for its business license (BPOL) tax.

The Board of Directors of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce has approved a communiqué to the Council contrasting the City’s BPOL rates to those of immediately surrounding jurisdiction. It notes that medium-sized businesses seeking to stay or locate to the City face an overwhelming disincentive from the tax here.

The Council will also be challenged to keep Shields’ proposed $2 million in the budget earmarked for an affordable housing fund.