Falls Church City Schools Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin cautioned an audience of 35 at a town hall meeting tonight that the current uprising in Egypt, leading to a mass exodus of Americans from that country, could result in a sudden increase in enrollment in the Falls Church school system. With a current enrollment of only 2,133 students K-12, the small system is already struggling to accommodate 79 new students this school year, a growth of 3.8 percent, given the pressures to extend the current pay freeze for teachers for another year.
Berlin joined F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields and Chief Financial Officer Richard LeCondre to present the parameters of the City’s projected new fiscal year budget, with estimated revenues of $63,595,589, which by current spending levels would result in a $2.295 million deficit that the City Council and School Board will have until late April to close with either tax increases or program cuts. Of the handful of citizens present at tonight’s town hall, held in the Community Center, not affiliated with major volunteer boards and commissions in the City, there seemed to be a roughly equal division between those who said they’d be willing to pay more for quality services and those who said “you can’t squeeze more blood from this stone.”
Berlin said that when American families come hurriedly from a foreign country to the U.S., many have diplomatic roots in the D.C. area, and the State Department has a habit of recommending Falls Church because of the reputation of its school system. This translates into families moving into the Oakwood or Pearson Square apartments, in particular, she said, even if only temporarily.
Other pressures on the F.C. school system she noted were higher than expected jumps in the schools’ obligations to the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) of 34 percent in one year, and Kaiser’s 11 percent and United Health Care’s 27 percent increases in health insurance premiums. While the City’s revenue transfer to its schools has declined by almost two million (from $29.2 to $27.5 million) in the last two years, the cost of education per student has dropped from in the $12 thousand to the $9 thousand range.
Berlin conceded that morale is low among school employees, and Jonathon Pepper, head of the F.C. Schools Education Association was present, he did not comment. Berlin said that the recent years’ pay freezes, which will extend to three if her recommendations are adopted by the School Board, have led some to seek second jobs, and there is worry of a flight away from Falls Church as all its surrounding jurisdictions are mulling salary hikes for teachers in their current budget talks.
Shields touted the City’s commitment to restore its fund balance, and the maintenance of “sound debt management policies,” while F.C. resident Robert M. LaJeunesse, Ph.D., a senior economist at the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, questioned that as a priority in tough economic times. “It proposes saving for a rainy day when it is raining,” he said, noting the City’s policy of limiting debt service to five percent of its annual operating budget is only half the state limit.
But Shields defended the City’s policy, saying, “We’re not going to change it now,” and said that past years’ annual revenue growth rates of 4.5 percent have vanished, leaving the City having to retool a “sustainable footing” with restructuring. He conceded that the recent, unexpected $2 million bill from Arlington County for the City’s share of Arlington Detention Center costs will be absorbed into the City’s next fiscal year budget, indicating the added cost has been established to be valid. He noted that the City is already operating with 12 percent fewer employees than it had just 18 months ago.
Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester also indicated that talks have begun with the local F.C. Chamber of Commerce about imposing an additional five cents on the real estate tax rate on commercial properties in the City, a move that was permitted by state legislation three years ago. She noted the state allows up to a 12.5 cent additional charge, but that the additional charge must be for purposes of transportation improvements that will benefit businesses.
F.C. Chief Information Officer Barbara Gordon revealed that a press release will be sent out from City Hall tomorrow outlining the general results of the City’s annual assessments of real estate values.
F.C. Mayor Nader Baroukh concluded tonight’s meeting by saying, “Our task is to determine what the ‘new normal’ will look like for Falls Church.” In addition to Baroukh, other members of the City Council present were Vice Mayor David Snyder and Councilmen Lawrence Webb, Johannah Barry and Ira Kaylin. School Board chair Joan Wodiska, Vice Chair Patrick Riccards and member Kieran Sharpe were there, along with Planning Commission chair Melissa Teates and member Lindy Hockenberry.
The video of the meeting, and of Saturday morning’s similar gathering, can be viewed in their entirety on the City of Falls Church website.