3-2 Council Vote With 2 Absent on Last-Minute Plan
“Incredibly disappointing” was the characterization by one Falls Church School Board member, echoing the sentiments of the entire board, to the unexpected, last minute action of the Falls Church City Council Monday to deny $500,000 of the last year’s $3.4 million budget surplus requested for technology upgrades.
School Board member Rosaura Aguerrebere drafted a commentary for the News-Press, printed in this week’s edition, following a work session with her colleagues Tuesday night. School Board chair Susan Kearney told the News-Press by phone Wednesday that Aguerrebere’s comments reflected the sentiments of the entire School Board.
Kearney said that there had been an agreement between the Council and School Board on the allocation of the surplus, which was created when real estate assessments turned out to be far higher than earlier projections. She said that the School Board expressed the need to recover $672,000 it had given back to the City when the lower revenue projections were in force, a sum taken out of critical technology upgrade needs.
But while that agreement was contained in an initially-drafted proposed ordinance for consideration by the Council Monday, barely an hour before Monday’s meeting was called to order a substitute motion was introduced. According to Council member Phil Duncan, the substitute came to his attention “past 6 p.m.” for the 7:30 p.m. meeting.
Adding to the “11th hour” action, initiated by Council members Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry, the absence at Monday’s meeting of two of the seven Council members heightened the drama. One absent member, Ron Peppe, is a former School Board chair.
Duncan, who was attending his first formal Council business meeting since being sworn in July 2, noted that he’d received a note from Peppe that he did not read aloud at the meeting, but that he subsequently revealed expressed “strong support” for the School Board request.
Duncan and the other new Council member David Tarter proved to be the only two votes against the substitute measure, while Kaylin, Barry and Mayor Nader Baroukh voted for it. Baroukh chastised Tarter when Tarter invited School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones to speak on the motion, saying that it was in violation of the formal procedures of the Council. But he allowed it.
Tarter and Duncan both objected to the last minute nature of the issue. Tarter said it was his first meeting since being sworn in, and had not heard a word about the matter. Baroukh replied that it had been discussed at a Council Budget and Finance sub-committee level.
Tarter said that insofar as the $3.4 million surplus represented 10 cents on the real estate tax rate, that it should be rebated back to the citizens. While no concrete explanations on why that wouldn’t work were presented Monday, Tarter was promised more information before the final “second reading” vote on the ordinance comes up on Aug. 13.
At another point this Monday, Baroukh snapped at Duncan, claiming that characterizing the substitute motion as setting the City against the schools was “inaccurate at best.”
Baroukh and Kaylin said the substitute motion preserves all the surplus for use in buffering future debt obligations, thereby insulating the City from future fiscal bumps in the road as the world and national economies remain unsettled and uncertain.
They stressed that the amounts being dedicated to this purpose, $1.4 million for both the City and Schools, amounted to a 50-50 split, more than the Schools should have expected.
However, School Board Chair Kearney disputed that in a communique to the News-Press Wednesday. “While we agree that the $1.4 million City council is intending to share with us is very welcome, it is not a 50-50 split as some Council member allege,” she wrote. “Because $800,000 is being taken off the top as a reserve for legal fees. At 38 percent it is smaller than the percentage of funds that the schools were apportioned in the original FY12 operating budget.”
In her commentary, Aguerrebere noted that while other area Virginia high schools have one computer for every student, Falls Church’s more than 850 students have access to only 30 laptops. She said the schools’ request out of the surplus would have provided one computer for every five or six children. “Computer literacy is an expectation in preparation for college,” she wrote.
Aguerrebere charged that “the actions of a few City Council members” Monday “tarnished our governmental process.”
Kearney told the News-Press that there has been no communication from the City since Monday’s Council vote, and that no one from the City or City Council sat in on the School Board work session Tuesday.
Kaylin, with a background in financial risk management, explained Monday how the financial storm clouds are continuing to gather over Europe, due in part to the U.S. Fed’s “Operation Twist” low interest rate policy, which could have a profound impact on the U.S., including all state and local jurisdictions. He said the bankruptcies of large California cities like Stockton and San Bernardino could spread widely.
“We need to try to get in front of this issue,” he said, adding “I wonder what the state (of Virginia) is doing to protect the Virginia Retirement System.”
Duncan also called into question Monday a provision in the ordinance that would bind the City to retain its City Hall property in its current use for the entire 20 year duration of a bond for its renovation.