F.C. School Board Digging In, Won’t Cut Budget to Meet Council Wishes

Members of the FC School Board deliberated over their proposed budget tonight. (Photo: News-Press)
Members of the FC School Board deliberated over their proposed budget tonight. (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church School Board went round and round in a work session Tuesday night on five scenarios devised by Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones for budgets she could work with marginally below her recommended 10.6 percent increase over last year.

They settled on her least costly option, an increase of 8.9 percent with an additional sum for contingencies, subject to their official vote on the number next Tuesday. This is despite the fact they’d been alerted that a solid number on the City Council wants a school budget number limited to a five percent increase.

The Board members had no trouble seeing their responsibility as representing the needs of the explosively-growing schools, rather than the political conundrum facing the City Council. As it is, however, the School budget will not include almost $2.4 million in school needs that Dr. Jones decided not to seek funding for this year.

The School budget request at 8.9 percent will seek $36.7 from the City, or 47.7 percent of the estimated total City operating budget of $77 million.

This budget cycle, which will culminate in the Council adoption of a Fiscal Year 2015 budget by the end of April, will challenge the Council to find ways to mitigate the impact on residents of a robust increase in real estate assessments, almost eight percent for single family homes, increased school costs due to record levels of enrollment growth, and a new Stormwater Utility fee that could be much higher for some properties than most are now expecting.

If the School Board officially votes for the 8.9 percent increase next Tuesday, that will put the City’s revenue needs about $1.5 million above the revenue projections based on no real estate tax rate increase above the current $1.305 per $100 of assessed valuations level. $1.5 million is between four and five additional cents on the tax rate.

The explosive enrollment growth of the F.C. School System, growing at a faster pace in the last four years than any other system in the region, has accounted for the need for the increased funding beyond what City Council members say they’ll be willing to support to date.

As School Board members deliberated on their numbers Tuesday, they were reminded that their budgets are almost entirely “people centered,” based on compensating teachers and staff, and maintaining small classroom sizes with world-class instruction. “We have hardly any ‘stuff’ beyond people needs,” Superintendent Jones reminded the board.

The School Board’s final vote on the budget request it will send to the City Manager, and eventually to the City Council, will come next Tuesday at the School Board offices conference room, where more than a dozen onlookers followed carefully the deliberations of the board this Tuesday.

Board vice chair Justin Castillo told his colleagues that he’d heard at least four (out of seven) Council members are committed at this stage to no tax rate increase in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, because a robust increase in real estate assessments will already cause tax bills to rise, on top of a new Storm Water Utility fee that all property owners will get tagged with.

Veteran Board member Kieran Sharpe said “we must not permit the City Council the illusion that we’d ever limit our budget to a five or seven percent growth.” Sharpe, in an informational show of hands, favored asking for Scenario 3, a 9.8 percent increase, along with Margaret Ward and the board’s student member, Maeve Curtin. Board members Lawrence Webb, John Lawrence and Michael Ankuma were all willing to go with the 8.9 percent increase in Scenario 5.

The board members discussed how the added funding burdens represent a regional problem, and not limited to Falls Church. Real estate assessments are now rising rapidly throughout the region, by 6.5 percent in Fairfax County and 5.3 percent in Arlington County.

Board Chair Susan Kearney said, “We have to do the best we can this year, and ask for what we need to educate our children. This is not a one-year phenomenon and I’m afraid the pie won’t grow fast enough.”

She called for the creation of a School Board-City Council Long Term Financial Group to deal with how to manage when there is a two or three percent annual rise in revenues, and a six or seven percent annual rise in school enrollment.