F.C. School Board Finds a Way: Zero-Growth Budget & Pay Hike

‘Almost a Miracle,’ Says Wodiska as Final Vote Taken

In what Chair Joan Wodiska called “almost a miracle” Tuesday night, the Falls Church School Board approved a budget that requests less from the City than a year ago, but still provides modest salary increases for all teachers and staff and involves no layoffs.

The operating budget of $35,784,100 is based on a requested appropriation from the City of $27,433,000, which is $3,600 less than a year ago, even as the Falls Church School System continues to experience robust annual enrollment growth.

The School Board’s budget request will be forwarded now to F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields who cannot modify it as he incorporates it into his overall Fiscal Year 2012 City budget recommendation to the City Council, which will have the final say on expenditures and tax rates come late April.

But the School Board made it clear Tuesday night that it has, as Wodiska put it, “drawn a line in the sand,” and will not agree to any further cuts in its request.
Still, the fact that its budget includes a half-“step” increase, and bonuses, for school employees will put unwanted pressure on the City Council to match such modest salary hikes with an equivalent boost for City-side employees. Facing a looming deficit, the City Council was already signaling that another year of salary freezes for City employees would be a virtual certainty.

In “guidance” on the budget crafted earlier, the Council indicated that its goal will be to close the deficit while not increasing the actual residential real estate tax bills that showed up in citizens’ mailboxes in the past year.

While the School Board kept its part of this bargain by not increasing its request for funds from the City, the fact it managed a modest salary increase will vex the Council.

But when the School Board hammered out a way to provide that half-“step” increase at a cost of $390,000 during a work session last Saturday morning, it was done so out of grave concerns that Falls Church’s school system was risking a serious loss of its competitiveness with surrounding school systems. Some, like those in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, have built two percent salary hikes into their budgets to gain an advantage in the recruitment of the best teachers.

In addition to the half-“step” increase (taking the form of a full “step” provided six months into the next year), the F.C. School Board also incorporated a “retention bonus,” amounting to sums from $600 on down, to teachers in an effort to hold onto its best and most experienced teaching talent. (According to Hunter Kimble, chief financial officer for the schools, once a step is provided, it becomes irreversible for future contracts.)

Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin expressed her pleasure with the budget, saying that she did not like having to conform with City Council “guidance” to recommend a zero-growth budget last month that included no salary increases, but, practically speaking, cuts in the form of requiring teachers to pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits.

Berlin came to tears when she presented that budget, and when she proclaimed this Tuesday her appreciation for how the School Board took her recommendation and was able to build some salary gains into it, making, as she put it, “lemonade out of a lemon,” she became emotional again.

Members of the School Board were slated to lay out their budget to a meeting of all school employees yesterday afternoon in the George Mason High School auditorium in hopes of winning active support for its adoption in full by the City Council.

“I am excited about presenting this budget to the City Council,” Wodiska said Tuesday night. She said it will come to them as the School Board will also press for three new policy initiatives for consideration going forward. They include a revenue-sharing agreement with the Council, a tripartite Council-School-Planning Commission approach to planning for long-term facilities needs, and a long-term “conversation” with the Council on “insuring world class benefits and salaries for our school staff in the future.”

“When the economy rebounds, we want to be in a strong position to take advantage of it,” she said.

School Board Vice Chair Patrick Riccards noted the adopted budget request also restored paralegal hours and absorbed higher health care and retirement costs, extended student opportunities for breakfast and did it all while absorbing enrollment growth and asking for the same transfer of funds from the City as the year before. “This budget is what we need, and not a penny less,” he said.

An alternative budget proposal introduced by veteran School Board member Kieran Sharpe, calling for a full “step” and more funds for contingencies, was voted down 6-1 prior to the same 6-1 vote (Sharpe dissenting) to adopt the budget that had been hammered out at last weekend’s work session.