I ended up on the School Board of Falls Church City because I could not keep my mouth shut at a George Mason High School PTSA meeting. That meeting was my introduction to “The Falls Church Way.”
I had just moved here from Maryland, where I had served for the prior seven years on the Frederick County Board of Education. The PTSA meeting that had been called to discuss a proposal to change school start times. There were passionate arguments on all sides, and a lot of talk about the budgetary impetus for the change. The consensus seemed to be that the Falls Church City school system was so small and the budgetary impact so large that we had no choice but to make the high school kids start school much earlier. I listened carefully, since I had recently been through the same discussion back in Maryland. The proposal would save money, but it also meant the older kids, who needed sleep the most, had to get up earlier.
I realized during that PTSA meeting that there was something different about Falls Church. I spoke up and said that with a system this small, surely we had the flexibility to figure out a compromise. The real surprise came when the school board reconsidered the change and did adopt a modified solution. I saw then that Falls Church City is a community where we can take advantage of our small size and flexibility, and listen to the community and work things out. (Much to the chagrin of my wife and children, speaking up also meant that I ended up as PTSA President at GMHS, and have served on the FCC School Board since that time).
I think back to that meeting now because of the challenges we face with the current budget. I was going to write about the budget specifics today, but I realized that the most important thing is that everyone understand and have confidence in the process that got us to those numbers.
It is true that we have been spoiled a bit in the past as revenues kept increasing.
It is true that we have been spoiled a bit in the past as revenues kept increasing. When there is plenty of money to go around, it is easier to deal with issues by giving everyone a little of what they want, and to avoid some of the tougher decisions. It is also sometimes too easy to forget that each of those dollars came out of someone’s pocket. Last year money got tighter, and we discovered some problems not just with the amount of money, but the process and the way our elected officials interacted with each other. The good news is that the School Board and City Council recognized the problem and committed to work together better. We met together and talked more, and made sure information flowed better between the School Board, the City Council, and the community. We used technology to make all of the information more accessible.
So where does that leave us? On the School Board side, we have adopted a proposed budget that does include some tough choices. There was a lot of debate along the way, but, in the end, the School Board unanimously agreed to support a budget that was guided by a desire to keep all cutbacks as far from the classroom as possible. We pledged to retain art and music, and all day kindergarten, to try to spread out staff hour reductions to preserve as many jobs as possible, and to maintain small class sizes. We surveyed staff about which benefits they value most, and tried to protect their top priorities so that we could continue to recruit and retain the best staff. We also worked with the city to consolidate more functions. The end result is a budget that is about 5% less than the current year, but that preserves our core values, including the primary objective of maintaining a small, independent school system.
Rather than go into the specifics here, you can find all of the budget details on the school system website: http://www.fccps.org/board/budget/fy11/. There you can see every detail, easily submit comments, and read all of the other comments (or email me at [email protected]).
That brings me back to my original point about the “Falls Church Way.” This budget is a good example of how this community can to pull together, articulate priorities, and create a budget that supports those priorities even in these tough times. Some folks have started questioning whether Falls Church can survive as an independent city. I think it can, if we keep working together. There is still room for improvement, but we are on the right track. The next steps are up to you- keep informed and speak up (but be careful what you say at a meeting, you could end up in my seat!).
Ron Peppe is the current Chair of the Falls Church City School Board. He has been a member of the School Board since 2006.