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F.C. School Superintendent Proposes 7.5% Budget Hike

Despite acknowledging that growth in revenues available to the City of Falls Church in the coming fiscal year will be “less than a half of one percent,” Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin unveiled her school budget recommendations to the School Board Tuesday projecting a 7.5% budget increase, a 6.1% increase in the school system’s funding request from the City.

While a .5% rise in the City’s revenues adds up to only about $360,000, Berlin’s recommended school funding request from the City adds up to $1,785,796. The differential of $1,425,796 is equivalent to about six cents on the current real estate tax rate of $1.01 of assessed value.

Still, the budget was presented as “bare bones” to maintain the quality of the system, which has had to deal with an unexpected spurt in enrollment this year. For the small system with 1,906 total students, the net growth of 33 students this school year has taxed its reserves, given that the budget projected a net growth of only three students. Another 66 new students are projected for next fall.

But it is in the area of teacher salaries that the greatest pressure on the budget exists. A highly-competitive environment in the recruitment and retention of a shrinking inventory of quality teachers compelled Berlin, she said, to propose a minimal “step plus three percent cost-of-living adjustment” increase in teacher salaries. That accounts for the vast bulk of the overall budget increase, a total of $1,708,700 by itself.

Still, according to the president of the Falls Church City Educational Association (FCCEA), Berlin’s proposed salary increases fall far short of what the City’s system needs to remain competitive.

Testifying at the School Board meeting prior to Berlin’s budget presentation Tuesday, FCCEA President Joel Block cautioned about the consequences of failing to provide competitive salaries.

“Thirty percent of the slots in our salary scale are the lowest salaries for the surrounding school systems. Also, 54% of our salary slots are next to last. This means that approximately 84 percent are below the middle salary level in the area,” he said.

Berlin said that, while she’d met with Block prior to crafting her budget recommendation, to propose more than the increases she did “would be fiscally irresponsible.”

In total, the school budget Berlin proposed is $40,865,000, up from $38,013,000 in the current year. While there are other sources of revenue from the state and elsewhere, the funding request from the City of Falls Church is $30,862,000, up by $1,785,796 from last year.

Unavoidable enrollment-driven costs and retirement trust fund and health insurance premium costs add over $1 million onto Berlin’s proposal, while she proposes reducing the size of the contingency fund from $300,000 to $250,000.

The superintendent’s proposed budget traditionally marks the kick-off of the annual budget cycle for Falls Church that culminates in the adoption of a final Citywide budget for Falls Church at the end of April, including whatever tax adjustments there may be.

On the schools’ side, the School Board will begin a process of work sessions, reviews and public hearings, the City side, where the final determination of revenues occurs, begins with the receipt of real estate assessment data later this month. That indicates the resource pool of real estate assets from which the City can derive its tax revenues to pay for school and general City expenses.

It is expected that the near-flat growth of assessed values this year may compel the City Council to raise the real estate tax rate for the first time in years, especially to maintain the reputation of its schools. Ironically, the school system’s reputation accounts for a considerable “value added” to Falls Church real estate, which would vanish if the schools declined in their equality.

Therefore, every property owner in Falls Church has a stake in maintaining the quality of the school system, if only to maintain property values.

It is not yet known this year how much new construction in the commercial corridors of the City will add to the tax pool for the coming fiscal year. But the City Council’s eagerness to see good new construction get underway in those areas is at least in part driven by the need to minimize a negative tax impact on its residential home owners.

The School Board will hold its first public hearing on the new budget on Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. School Board work sessions will be held on Saturday mornings, Jan. 26 and Feb. 9, at 8:30 a.m. and more public hearings will be held on Tuesday nights, Feb. 12 and 19, at 7:30 p.m. The final board vote on its budget will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 26.

The schools’ funding request to the City Council then gets tacked onto whatever proposed budget City Manager Wyatt Shields recommends in early March. That takes into account projected revenues from the real estate assessments.

The Council will deliver its final verdict on the budget on Monday, Apr. 28, eight days before the May 6 City Council election.