Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: F.C. Schools Must Improve, Reform & Refine

This year, the City of Falls Church is caught between opposing forces. We must pay for greater state and federal mandates, but our resources are stagnant. We have ever-increasing expectations, but even more students to serve. We treasure our City’s independence, but face increased costs and murmurs about merging jurisdictions. There is one thing this community has never been conflicted about, our commitment to public education.

Since our emancipation from Fairfax County in 1948, our schools have uniquely defined the core values, tradition, and identity of the City of Falls Church. High quality, small, and independent – these terms are ubiquitous with our schools. We are measured not by our past successes, however, but our ability to ensure that every student succeeds today and into the future. City residents will settle for nothing less than the best public schools, nor will the Board. Even today during challenging budget times, the Board and public expect and demand we provide a world-class education to every student.

In the last three years, as the City experienced budgetary pain, the Board asked our schools to do more with less. We cut budgets, eliminated programs, redirected funds, and created new efficiencies. The Board also made the difficult, but necessary, decision to eliminate positions.

On March 14, I will present the FY2012 Falls Church City School Board Budget to City Council. Let there be no mistake, this year was no less difficult than previous years. The School Board went line by line and made very difficult decisions. Student population is ever-rising. Class sizes are increasing. Retirement costs are unpredictable, mandated, and frankly, unsustainable, growing by more than 34 percent. Health care costs for the majority of school employees also grew by 27 percent, and other mandated costs increased by more than $1 million.

These are difficult times in education – all across the country – but this is a special place, and we aren’t just any school district.

Despite these challenges, the School Board worked together to approve a $38.4 million budget request that improves working conditions, retains staff, and ensures the competitiveness, independence, and quality of our schools despite financial adversity.

The budget preserves all current jobs; no staff member will lose employment. It reinstates the four para-professional days that were wrongly eliminated during last year’s budget decisions. It continues to pay 75 percent of health insurance premiums. It also provides a mid-year step increase for all eligible employees and a one-time retention bonus for all employees.

The budget also looks ahead. It makes a down payment to address our future facility and capital infrastructure needs beyond 2020. It includes a new public-private partnership to transform Falls Church into the premiere on-line learning leader in the nation, while generating a sustained outside funding source. The budget pays all IB and AP testing fees for students. And, for the first time in the City’s history, breakfast will be offered to every child, in every school. No child should want for food. For no matter how good the teachers are, how new the buildings, or how modern the programs, a hungry child cannot learn.

Finally, we accomplish our goals without increasing the burden on Falls Church taxpayers. That is correct. The Board is requesting a flat city transfer and no additional city dollars.

Throughout the budget process, the Board worked closely with City Council, City Staff, School Staff, parents, and the community to ensure the best possible school budget. That was our commitment. We delivered what we promised – the smartest, most fiscally responsible, reform-oriented budget possible for our students, parents, staff, and City residents.
I am enormously proud of the School Board’s budget. It’s a near miracle, forged by hard work, innovation, and a commitment to excellence.

Our schools stand at a crossroads. We can head down a path toward mediocrity, blaming lean and difficult budget years and weaken instruction, jeopardizing the quality of our schools, and reminiscing about the “good ol’ days” of great schools. Or, we can lead. We can recommit ourselves to a world-class education, make the critical investments, and honor our City’s and founders’ commitment to public education.

These are difficult times in education – all across the country – but this is a special place, and we aren’t just any school district. Smarter, smaller, more efficient government, and improved student outcomes are essential for survival. Our Board, and our public, expect excellence. To do this, we must continually improve, reform, and refine. A world class education for every student can be achieved and it must be done.

The Board has a long tradition of asking for what is needed, not a penny more. This year is no exception. The School Board budget is needed, it is necessary, it is the future of public education, and it is a window into our City’s fate. On behalf of the School Board, I ask City Council to approve our budget and send us forward into the future.

 


Joan Wodiska is the chair of the Falls Church City School Board.