When I first wrote this column, it was filled with simple, easy-going facts about how the schools had been under-funded for years and how we were starting – just starting – to get back on track. Unfortunately after Tuesday night’s Council work session, I feel I need to be a bit more pointed.
Let’s start with the fact that in the Washington Post Challenge Index our George Mason High School once again ranked as highest in the traditional high school category in the Commonwealth and third among all such public high schools in the Metro area. Among all schools – public, private and magnet – Mason ranks second in Virginia.
First, everyone needs to understand that the request made by the School Board did not reflect the full school needs. The Superintendent identified all the needs and they totaled almost $5 million more than we requested from the City. So if you hear that the City is considering “fully” funding the schools, take that with a huge grain of salt. Some have called for “phasing in” the school budget because of anticipated increases. That’s exactly what we did by not asking for everything we actually need this year.
Second, yes, the schools have asked for a significant increase over last year’s budget. Why? In the past five years enrollment has gone up by 26 percent and City transfer per student (adjusted for inflation to be fair) has gone down by 19 percent. If, starting in 2007, the school division had received its historic 46 percent of revenues, we would have received almost $10 million more in that time period. So the schools have been defunded to the tune of $10 million over five years.
Third, where does the school division money go? Well, 85 percent is for people and that basically means teachers. Our administrative costs are down to 4 percent – versus 9 percent for the City.
Where do we stack up with other schools in the region? For teacher pay? We’re lower – sometimes much lower. Class size? We’re bigger (except for Fairfax at the high school level). Facilities? As David Chavern said last week, we’re much worse.
And yet for scores, graduation rates, athletics, etc., we’re at the top of the top. But we’ve been underfunding the schools and the question is when is too little too much?
One thing I’ve learned as I’ve read and studied while on the School Board is that if a child gets two years in a row of a seriously sub-standard teacher, they never catch up with their peers. What about funding? How many years of seriously underfunding the schools will result in a hole too big to dig out of? And one on the Council called this “fear mongering,” accusing the schools of a budget “based on fear.” We have been underfunded for the past five years to the tune of $10 million. Our current request is nearly $5 million below documented needs. Given the way the Council is leaning now, by the end of FY 2014, the schools would have been underfunded by $15 million over six years. That’s not fear – that’s math.
Some on Council seem to think that we can just continue to absorb this and accuse us of setting up a “false zero-sum game.” Apparently they think such massive underfunding shouldn’t cause problems with our schools. Using my Midwestern penchant for logic, I guess they would also say that if we were to pump in an extra $15 million over five years we should see no dramatic improvement in the schools. Take out $15 million? No difference. Put in $15 million? No difference. Seriously? I get a headache from that kind of thinking.
In fairness, Councilmen Baroukh and Peppe seemed to want to fund the school request and Councilman Snyder has also always been a strong school supporter.
But it looks as if the Council is looking to cut $350,000 (at least) from the schools. What can the school cut to meet this arbitrary number? Here are some possibilities.
• A Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teacher, or
• The entire budget to set up new classrooms at TJ, Pre-K, 1st grade, and Kindergarten, or
• The entire Gifted Budget for MD, TJ, and MEH, including staff, or
• 26 percent of the Special Education budget for George Mason, or
• The entire custodial staff, or
• All of our electric, gas, water, sewer, custodial supplies and maintenance repair fund
And the list can go on. Art? Athletics?
Then what we’ll hear is “No, don’t cut that.” If the Council cuts the school request, something – several things, in fact – will have to give. Class size will increase without question. Come to the Council meeting on Monday, April 22 (7:30 in City Hall) and speak out for the schools.
Support the schools. Fund our future.
John Lawrence is a member of the Falls Church City School Board.