Two years ago, I joined the Falls Church School Board. At that time I applauded the City Council’s approach to correcting the financial crisis. At nearly every turn I supported their efforts; especially pertaining to budget guidance given to the School Board. Even when I believed the City was underestimating the revenue forecast and even when I believed it a mistake to channel so many taxpayer dollars into a rainy day fund, I believed they were acting in good faith and I stood by their efforts to hold expenditures down.
But in good conscience, I can no longer support this approach. Everyone agrees that the Schools and the City have glaring unmet needs. As a matter of fact, and contrary to some statements on this, we included some of those unmet needs – namely our technology needs – in our School Budget presentation to Council earlier this year and we coupled that with statements that we hoped to share any excess revenue with the City and then apply that to those needs.
It just makes no sense to continue to roll taxpayer dollars into City savings accounts and to pay down low interest debt when we all know the City and the schools have a growing list of unmet needs.
I’m no fan of paying higher taxes. But I think we need to make a decision as a community how long we are going allow the list of critical needs to go unmet and even grow.
I understand the view by some on Council that funding operational needs can add to future requirements; that is Budgeting 101. But not funding operational needs doesn’t make the problem go away. Our police, our parks, our civil infrastructure, and our schools need attention. We can’t just put our heads in the sand and hope they go away. Putting off investing just increases the costs going forward, literally and figuratively. To be fair, it is the City Council’s job to make those decisions.
However, as a School Board member it is my job, it is my shared responsibility with my fellow Board members to make budgeting decisions to ensure we have the right tools for our kids. We need to upgrade our technology in our schools and we need to do it right now. As our Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones so eloquently put it, “Digital literacy is an expectation for children, and to be successful in school they must have access.” It is that important. We may be forced to make cuts in existing program areas or restructure our buying approach in order to make these needed technology investments. Of course we can avoid this budgeting Scylla and Charybdis if the Council will partner with us to meet this need.
Let me make one thing clear – we do not have a slush fund available for making these investments. What we do have is a very reasonable and responsible annual budget carry over process commonly referred to as “fund balance.”
The fund balance is the money left in the school division’s operating account at the end of the fiscal year on June 30. All money in the fund balance must be rolled over for use in the school’s operating budget in a subsequent year. The existence of the fund balance promotes fiscal responsibility and a “savings mentality” since all funds not used in a given year are rolled over to a subsequent year rather than returned to the general government.
Unlike other school divisions and federal government agencies, there is no “use it or lose it” mentality within the Falls Church City schools.
And unlike the City Council, our rainy day fund is very small – $150,000 – and it is designed to address minor emergencies. It would be wildly irresponsible to decimate that fund to buy technology before the school year even starts.
The current divisive climate in our country is taking a major toll on us as a people. We simply must learn to work together to build consensus and answer the great questions of the day. It will be very sad indeed if as a City we fall into the same trap of split decisions and do-nothing gridlock. Our citizens and children deserve better.
So I beg the Mayor, the Vice-Mayor and Members of Council to do the right thing. Find a common ground and allocate a portion of the excess revenue for badly needed technology upgrades for the schools. The community supports this approach. I urge you to work with each other to find a way to do it and I urge you to do it now when we still have time to get this technology in place before the school year begins. Just allowing the surplus to lapse back into fund balance ignores our children’s needs.
Greg Rasnake is a member of the Falls Church City School Board.