Fur Flies at First F.C. Council, School Board Joint Budget Meet

As advertised, there was no shortage of loud and emphatic rhetoric at tonight’s joint City Council, School Board and Planning Commission work session, the first meeting on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget since F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields unveiled his $74,986,375 recommended budget on Monday.

On one side of the tables in the cramped City Hall conference room members of the School Board, most emphatically Chair Susan Kearney and Greg Rasnake, were in unison arguing for the enrollment growth-driven 12.9 percent increase in the amount of their request for a transfer from the City. On the other side, with a one exception, the Council stood its ground on needing to attend to the needs of the entire City and, coming loudest from Ira Kaylin, not to tinker with its 17 percent fund balance reserve.

A crux of the matter for the schools being funding for capital expansion needs, Kaylin surprised everyone when late in the meeting he called for a public referendum in November to decide the matter. If voters were to approve the funds for the expansions needed, then all the Council and School Board wrestling over such priorities would be removed. But the idea came too suddenly for any thought-through responses from others present.

School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones reported that enrollment at the City’s four public schools will soon top 2,291, up from 1,191 in 1989 and 1,682 in 1999. Rasnake argued that mitigating the impact of a tax rate hike to fund the increased school needs with some of City’s fund balance reserve was needed because the schools face “a real crisis, an enrollment crisis with dire consequences.” He asked the Council, “What kind of community are we if our schools degenerate. There can be no line in the sand drawn on this.”

But Kaylin blew up at the talk of tapping the reserve, saying if anything, 17 percent is too low. He said the City cannot seek bonding for its capital improvements if it goes to Wall Street and its reserves are deemed to be too low. He gave a very foreboding, unforgiving picture of how Wall Street operates.

Other Council members, however, focused on making it through to the brighter future that on-going large scale commercial development holds. David Tarter said that the projections of net revenue contributions to the City from five projects at one or another stage of fruition now — the Northgate, Hilton Garden Inn, Rushmark (Harris Teeter), Reserve at Tinner Hill and 400 N. Washington projects — will be contributing an enormous percentage to the City’s revenue base in the next five years. “We can get out of our problems through economic growth,” he said. “It is crystal clear.”

Councilman Phil Duncan added about the potential for economic development that could come from “the City’s first direct gateway to Metro” if voters decide to sell the City’s water system this November. “That will become the large elephant in the room,” he said.

He also tossed a jibe at Kaylin’s “17 percent is too low” fund balance remark, saying citizens ask him if they’ve got nothing in reserve in the bank because of the rough economy, why the City has 17 percent just sitting there, equivalent for a $70 million budget to almost $12 million.

While the City’s Chief Financial Officer Richard LeCondre defended the 17 percent at Kaylin’s behest, it was noted the number was at the high end of the City’s official policy on the matter, calling for between 12 and 17 percent. (In the 1990s, when the F.C. Council then first adopted a fund balance policy, the range was from 8 to 12 percent).

School Board member Justin Castillo decried the “divide” between the Council and School Board. “Can we sit here and say this (funding the schools–ed.) is a business proposition? We’re better than that. This divide is ludicrous,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that the tone I’m hearing in this conversation about the schools is ‘aren’t there too many kids?'”, Kearney said. “Our schools are one of the most important assets of our City. What we do uniquely here is maintain the highest quality education system, and we get a lot of value for what we pay.”

She noted that traditionally in Falls Church, the schools have gotten 46 percent of the general fund revenues,. but that through the recession, that fell back to 40-42 percent. “We have been defunded the last few years despite record enrollment growth,” she said. “Now there is revenue growth to help the City recover nicely, but the schools have not.”