As a long-standing member of the Falls Church City School Board, I have never felt compelled to put pen to paper to express my thoughts until this week. However, at last Monday’s Falls Church City Council meeting, I was disappointed, dismayed, and saddened by what transpired with the actions of a few council members.
The City Council voted not to support the School Board’s plans to invest in much needed technology for the schools. We are a city that prides itself on strong governance, excellent schools, and a wholesome environment to raise our families. We are a vibrant community. Honesty is at the core of who we are as a collective body. Last Monday, the actions of a few city council members tarnished our governmental process.
Over the past two months, the City Council and School Board have been discussing how best to utilize surplus funds that have occurred as a result of increased revenue above projections during this past year. Over the past three years, we had been asked to give back more than $672,000 of our school budget when the City fell short. In 2011, the City said there could be no increase to the schools budget due to economic hardship. Although it was not easy, we held tight with a budget that had been decreasing over the past five years while student enrollment saw the greatest increase in the history of Falls Church.
We have made cuts to our budget in every area to keep teachers in the classrooms. While jurisdictions such as Henrico County, Charlottesville and our neighbors at TC Williams in Alexandria have rolled out a computer for every student in their high school, we have sat at George Mason with access to 30 laptops for more than 850 students. It’s not about the machine; it’s what our children can do with technology. Technology allows students to use interactive programs, gain instant feedback on assessments, collaborate with one another, and utilize the same technology-based programs required of our students at college. It also opens the door to replace heavy textbooks and backpacks that often weigh more than twenty pounds. Most importantly, computer literacy is an expectation in preparation for college. Our children live in a world where technology will touch every aspect of their future careers. They will be expected to create, collaborate, and communicate, utilizing technology. A new day has dawned for education.
It is important to note that this is not the first surplus in recent years. There was a surplus last year, and the entire surplus was allocated to increase the City’s fund balance. The school board, while frustrated that the city was growing this balance so quickly, without restoring critical needs, supported their actions. This year it was going to be different. We were going to restore the more than $672,000 that had been given back in the previous years. This money came directly from instructional needs. Over the past two months, the goal was to find common ground that would be beneficial for the city, the taxpayers, and the schools. In fact, our School Board recommended a rebate to the city taxpayers as a first item for discussion. The surplus is more than $3.6 million dollars. The City budgeted $600,000 for legal fees before discussing the rest of the surplus. The remaining 82% was up for discussion.
What happened last Monday? The remaining $2.8 million was going to be split between the schools and the city. The $1.4 million for the schools was going to support $500,000 in much needed technology upgrades. While this plan still couldn’t compete with the likes of Charlottesville, Alexandria and Henrico, we were going to make sure that we at least had one computer for every five or six children in our schools. The remaining $900,000 was being dedicated to construction projects in the capital improvements plan. Our facilities are aging quickly, and accelerating our modernization funding would allow us to take care of some pressing needs.
The plan was on the Council agenda and posted, as required, well in advance. However, an hour before the meeting an alternate plan was produced and put forward for vote that evening. Two of the Council members were absent that night, and therefore had no involvement in discussing the new version. I feel that if the two members had been present, the outcome might have been different. We have worked hard to forge a collaborative and trusting relationship with the city council, and changing the agenda an hour before their meeting was incredibly disappointing.
I remain positive and hopeful that the City Council will support the request of the School Board to address the critical needs of our schools.
Rosaura Aguerrebere is a member of the Falls Church City School Board.