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F.C. Budget Squeeze Hit Early With Teacher Salary Pressure

Even prior to the New Year, the Falls Church City Council and School Board got a glimpse at how tough it will be to hold the line on their upcoming budgets this week. The chairman of the schools’ Professional Employees Advisory Committee dropped a bombshell on the School Board Tuesday, revealing recommendations adopted by his group, and also the Falls Church City Education Association, calling for a hefty increase in teacher salaries.

The presentation, presented by PEAK chair Joel Block, was aimed at making Falls Church City School salary scales competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, noting that 84% of current salaries are below the middle salary level of combined surrounding school districts.

But the push to maintain competitiveness in teacher salaries could not come at a worse time for Falls Church, which faces its worst budget squeeze in decades this spring, due to the sharp drop in the assessed values of the City’s residential real estate. While the real estate slump is impacting the entire region, and nation, it is more acutely felt in a small jurisdiction like Falls Church which is overly dependent on revenue from residential real estate taxes.

There is nothing that justifies Falls Church’s ongoing existence as an independent jurisdiction than the quality and reputation of its school system. Realtors have told the News-Press over the years that the reputation of Falls Church schools has resulted in a significant, 10% to 15% value added on residential real estate here.

Therefore, if that reputation were to become tarnished, the tax revenue implications of that alone for City operations could be catastrophic.

So, the City is in a very unique pinch. Real estate values are already declining, and if that means cutting the schools’ budget, then it could get even worse. Only raising the tax rate can make up the difference, but with a smaller percentage of taxpaying residents having school-aged children, that kind of move could provoke an anti-tax electoral reaction come the City Council election next May.

The tough news delivered by Block on Tuesday was that while there is a general teacher shortage, Fairfax and Loudoun counties next year are both planning to hire more new teachers than are currently in the entire Falls Church school system.

That news is made more acute, he said, by the fact that Falls Church is currently not paying “the going rate” for its teachers.

“Currently our teachers drive by schools that would pay them more on their way to work,” he noted. “Why shouldn’t they consider switching to another school system if Falls Church is not going to pay in the middle of the pack?”

As for hiring new teachers, he added, “How are we going to hire high quality new teachers and, more importantly, how are we going to retain these new hires if we don’t pay the going rate?”

The PEAK’s formal recommendation noted that 30% of the slots in the Falls Church teacher salary scale are the lowest salaries among the surrounding school systems (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun). Also, 54% more of the salary slots are next to last, leaving a total of 84% below the middle salary level in the area.

“Not fixing this now will only cause worsening future problems,” the report states. “To continue this downward spiral begins to determine a future pool of uncertain applicants and it deteriorates the current professionals as they must make economic choices in their families’ best interests.”

The PEAK’s recommendation, also endorsed by the FCCEA, would bring the Falls Church system to a competitive level with the starting salaries of the surrounding school systems by having it tied for third or fourth place at each salary level. It is done by a combination of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) and then tying all Falls Church salaries to those of the next-higher rank of compensation among the other systems.

This recommendation for a significant overall spending hike will be considered now by Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin as she is slated to make her own budget recommendations to the School Board in mid-January. Then the School Board will have the final say in its request for funding from the City Council by mid-February.

City Manager Wyatt Shields will then add that request to his own recommendations for the City’s operating budget for the new fiscal year beginning next July 1, and will indicate what kind of adjustment to the City’s various tax rates will be required to balance that budget.

Finally, the ball comes to the City Council’s court, where it will make the final call on how much both the City operations and the schools will have to work with, combined with what the tax rates will be. That will come at the end of April.

The very next week, Falls Church citizens will elect three City Council members from among a field that will include both incumbents and newcomers.