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F.C. Schools Superintendent Offers Zero-Growth Budget Plan

schoolboardwebFalls Church City School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin began the presentation of her recommended Fiscal Year 2012 budget to the F.C. School Board Tuesday by remarking it is “the most difficult in my time as superintendent in Falls Church,” and concluded it by tearing up as she turned to representatives of teacher and staff organizations sitting in the audience, choked up and said, “My biggest disappointment is not being able to reward you.”

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SHOWN MEETING in a work session prior to the start of Tuesday’s Falls Church School Board meeting, Dr. Lois Berlin (center, facing) was preparing to unveil her recommended budget for the coming year, with the schools’ chief financial officer Hunter Kimble (left) as School Board chair Joan Wodiska (right) was speaking. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church City School Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin began the presentation of her recommended Fiscal Year 2012 budget to the F.C. School Board Tuesday by remarking it is “the most difficult in my time as superintendent in Falls Church,” and concluded it by tearing up as she turned to representatives of teacher and staff organizations sitting in the audience, choked up and said, “My biggest disappointment is not being able to reward you.”

Berlin’s budget, which asks for $3,600 less from the City than last year’s, is limited to an overall $297,810 increase, or 0.8 percent, to a total of $37,720,000, and while it includes no layoffs of teachers or staff, it also offers no salary increases, period. In addition, the schools will seek a 4 percent participation by new employees in the Virginia Retirement System, and will introduce a charge of $50 for every International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exam taken by students.

Berlin achieved her zero-growth budget despite an increase of 79 students to the City’s four schools, bringing overall enrollment to 2,133. The biggest added costs being absorbed by the system are fixed, including a whopping 49 percent increase in the cost of involvement in the City’s retirement plan, a 34 percent increase in the cost of participation in the Virginia Retirement System and a 10 percent increase in the cost of health insurance. Those increased fixed costs take an $840,100 bite out of the budget.

Overall, the expected reduced tax revenues to the City leading to a City mandate to seeking no increase in the City’s transfer to the schools, increased fixed costs of health care and retirement, increased enrollment and the striving to maintain the School Board’s work plan to maintain the excellence of the system provided the constraining parameters of her proposed budget, Dr. Berlin said.

“Student achievement will be our primary focus, even with no new money,” she said. Reprogramming some functions will allow to small increases in teachers and specialists in the areas of reading, autism management, student transitions, English, Spanish and summer school. With no new funding for security, some security cameras will be replaced with more advanced digital models, outdoor lighting will be enhanced and doors upgraded at Mt. Daniel and George Mason.
Savings found through lowered salary costs, and cuts in funding for the Community Services and Food Services budgets limited the overall budget increase to only $297,810, she indicated, adding that she was unable to restore $2 million in cuts made in last year’s budget.

Responding to Berlin’s presentation, School Board chair Joan Wodiska said, “We will strive for a consensus, but we’ll agitate with great vigor for our staff and our schools.” She called on the public to weigh in the process so help “so we can deliver on our vision for a world class education.”

Present in the audience Tuesday, and those to whom Dr. Berlin turned and made her tearful comment, were leaders of the school system’s Professional Employees Advisory Committee (PEAK), the Support Employees Advisory Committee (SEAK) and the Falls Church City Education Association (FCCEA).

In remarks to the News-Press yesterday, Dr. Berlin said feedback she has received since introducing her recommendations “has been positive,” adding that some staff members have told her, “We’re not happy, but we understand.”

Tonight, Dr. Berlin is slated to join F.C. Mayor Nader Baroukh and others to discuss the recommended budget in the context of the City’s overall fiscal situation to a meeting of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School PTA.

The School Board will now take Dr. Berlin’s recommended budget under advisement and has scheduled a series of three work sessions and three public hearings prior to its adoption of the budget that it will forward to the City Manager. Their final vote will come Feb. 15, Their first work session will be Jan. 22, and first public hearing Jan. 25.

F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields is required by law to forward the School Board’s budget to the City Council by absorbing it into the overall City operating budget. Shields will not learn the results of the annual citywide real estate assessment process until mid-February, and will take that into account in crafting his own proposed budget that he will present in mid-March, and the City Council will then have the final say in late April for setting the tax and fee rates and expenditures for the coming fiscal year budget that will become operative July 1.

Tuesday’s was Dr. Berlin’s final budget recommendation to the Council prior to her retirement this summer. She has served seven years in her current role dating to July 2004. She will serve through June 30 this year.