News

F.C. Council Denies School Tech $, But It May Not Be Over Quite Yet

Vote Needed to Pay WMATA May Re-Open Surplus Spending Roil

Members of the Falls Church School Board, assembled for a work session Tuesday night after their counterparts on the City Council denied their request for $500,000 in technology upgrade funds the night before, speculated that the intensely divisive issue may not yet be settled, after all.

schoolboardmeeting225MEMBERS OF THE Falls Church School Board gathered for an intense work session Tuesday night after the City Council denied its urgent request for $500,000 in student technology upgrades the night before. (Photo: News-Press)

 
Vote Needed to Pay WMATA May Re-Open Surplus Spending Roil

Members of the Falls Church School Board, assembled for a work session Tuesday night after their counterparts on the City Council denied their request for $500,000 in technology upgrade funds the night before, speculated that the intensely divisive issue may not yet be settled, after all.

School Board member Greg Rasnake noted that since additional Council action will be required by mid-September to make a large payment to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), the introduction of a motion to do that could re-open the entire issue of how the Council will handle the more than $3 million surplus from the recently-completed fiscal year.

A little-noticed move late Monday came after the dust settled from two dramatic 3-3 tie votes to defeat two plans for the deploying the surplus that left the entire sum in the City’s already-bulging fund balance (a four-vote Council majority is required to pass any measure, and one Councilman, Vice Mayor David Snyder, was absent). It was a similar 3-3- defeat of a motion to allocate seemingly non-controversial amounts from the surplus to only pay WMATA, set aside funds for legal purposes and some other smaller bills.

Mayor Nader Baroukh berated those who voted against that motion for “playing games,” while Councilman Phil Duncan, for one, said he needed more explanation of some of the costs, and didn’t like the idea that it would allocate $600,000 for City legal fees when the Council could not agree to give $500,000 to the schools.

But with the defeat of that motion, Acting City Manager Cindy Mester said that Council action would be required by mid-September to avoid a default of the City’s obligation to WMATA.

It could set up another showdown at the Council’s next scheduled business meeting on Sept. 10 when all seven members may be present and Snyder will have the opportunity to weigh in on, perhaps, a motion to amend a measure to fund WMATA to deploy $500,000 from the City’s fund balance – now ballooned to 23 percent of the size of the total annual operating budget.

At its work session Tuesday night, the School Board agreed that it would not let the matter of the technology funds die just yet. It resolved that a letter from School Board Chair Susan Kearney and School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones be sent to City Hall, urging the Council to reconsider its Monday vote right away.

All three 3-3 votes Monday night saw Mayor Baroukh, Ira Kaylin and Johannah Barry on one side, and Duncan, David Tarter and Ron Peppe on the other. The former group voted to deny a motion granting the school request and the latter group voted for that and against motions without it.

Emotions ran very high in the meeting, with Peppe exclaiming at one point when Mayor Baroukh said “I don’t want to play any games” with the subject that he perceived that was done when a last-minute substitute motion was introduced in his absence at the Council’s last meeting, saying, “I would have flown back if I’d known.”

School Superintendent Jones, School Board chair Kearney, School Board members Charlotte Hyland, Justin Castillo and Rasnake all spoke during the petition period to the Council on why the technology funds are needed.

They said the needs were fully discussed with the Council in the spring, but that they agreed to withhold the funds in an effort to help the Council balance its budget. So, when the surplus appeared at the end of the fiscal year, they immediately came back with a request for the funds.

Initially, in a joint meeting, the Council agreed. However, that changed when a last-minute substitute motion was introduced last month when Peppe and Snyder were absent.

A motion by Tarter to split the surplus three ways, including a tax rebate to citizens, failed by the first 3-3 vote. A motion to salt the money away into capital improvement accounts, which passed 3-2 last month, also failed by a 3-3 vote.

Dr. Jones, in her comments, said, “It is not fair to our children” to be absent the means to do math assessment tests that require enhanced technology skills. “Students must drag, drop, build a chart, use a digital compass, and use a digitalized ruler. Children shouldn’t be practicing with a pencil and testing with a computer. We should be able to give our children the digital confidence to know that they have been prepared.”

“We are behind in technology, and we are on a mission to catch up,” she said. The schools, at all levels, need 500 iPads and 700 laptops.

Councilman Kaylin insisted the schools have the money for this squirreled away in their fund balance. But School proponents strongly denied that. “There is no slush fund,” Rasnake said. Others stressed the transparency of the School Board’s budgeting, noting that denying raises and cutting programs, resulting in the School’s funding requests being unchanged since 2009 despite a 15 percent enrollment growth do not suggest any large sum of undeployed funds exist.

“There is no unspent pot of money,” Peppe, a former School Board chair, insisted.

Council member Johannah Barry said, “This is not a question of the merit of the school division request. It is imprudent to use extraordinary revenue to solve an operations problem. The issue is a structural one, not a philosophical one.”