Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: A Look at the School Board’s Budget Request

On March 4, after almost two months of presentations, discussion, public hearings, analysis, and deliberation, the Falls Church City School Board adopted an operating budget for the 2014-15 school year (FY15) – $44,834,600, a 9.5% increase over the current year. Of this, the School Board is requesting a transfer from the City (your tax dollars at work accounting for 82.4% of our budget) of $36,962,200, a 9.7% increase over the current year.

Why is the school board requesting this increase? We continue to face two major challenges.

First, Falls Church City Schools are the fastest growing division in the Washington, D.C. area, and by a lot. Next year we are expecting another 7.1% growth in student enrollment, or 172 additional students. This is nearly equal to adding a whole new grade to our schools. This growth, alone, accounts for $1.6M or almost half of our requested increase.

The second challenge is our teachers are underpaid. Compared with Arlington County, our teachers earn 5% to 25% less. In real dollars, teachers can make $2,200 to $22,000 more for doing the same job if they do it in Arlington. This makes it extremely difficult to recruit and retain the best teaching staff. Research shows great teachers are the number one difference between good and great student learning. Why do we compare ourselves to Arlington County? Quite simply it is where some of our best teachers and teacher recruits are choosing to work instead of Falls Church. To rectify this, we are requesting an additional $529,000 in this year’s budget as the first installment of a 4-year catch-up program to make pay more equitable for our outstanding faculty. We also have included nearly $500,000 for incremental raises for all division staff.

The other increases in our budget request are for mandatory items like retirement, healthcare benefits, and required staff to meet state Standards of Quality.

As always, the school board and superintendent continue to search for significant budget reductions through such means as staff reductions and consolidations, reprogramming, and postponement of expenses. This year, we will save nearly $900,000 from such reductions, bringing the total savings for the past 4 years to almost $4 million. Our thoroughness in cutting operational expenses to the bone was confirmed recently by an efficiency study of division operations, conducted by a well-respected third party, which concluded we are running exceptionally lean and found few additional opportunities for further efficiency. The study also recognized the high level of resource sharing between the schools and general city government.

Is this request reasonable? Here are some data points putting the Falls Church City Schools’ budget request in perspective. If this request is fully funded:

1. Per pupil funding will be slightly less next year than it was 8 years ago, in 2007, in nominal dollars (i.e. not adjusted for inflation). When you do adjust for inflation, spending is actually 17% less per student than in 2007.

2. Falls Church Schools comprise 45% of the operating budget for the City of Falls Church. That’s about the average for the past 10 years. But compare this to what is spent on schools by both Arlington County (46-47%) and Fairfax County (51-52%) as a percent of their operating budgets. It’s important to remember also that Falls Church per capita enrollment far exceeds either of these jurisdictions and continues to grow.

3. Per pupil spending (PPS) in Falls Church will be $16,991. This compares to $18,800 (PPS) in Arlington, where class sizes are similar to ours, and $13,472 in Fairfax County where class sizes are much larger and they benefit from economies of scale.

So yes, Falls Church’s spending on education is well within reason.

What do we get for our money? Falls Church City Schools has the highest graduation rate, the highest percentage of students pursuing postsecondary education, the highest SAT scores, and the greatest percentage of National Merit semi-finalists and finalists in Northern Virginia. Our students routinely compete at district, state, and national levels, and frequently are champions in Scholastic Bowl, FIRST Robotics, and Odyssey of the Mind, as well as geography and spelling bees, STEM Olympiads, and more. Our students also reach the highest performance levels in the arts and athletics. We truly have a world-class school system.

The Falls Church economy also is a major beneficiary of this success. For instance, residential real estate values are buoyed greatly by the reputation of our outstanding schools.

To learn more about the school division’s budget request, visit fccps.org/budget, and attend the upcoming budget forum sponsored by leading Falls Church civic associations – the CBC, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party – on April 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. You can also contact me directly at skearney@fccps.org.


Susan Kearney is Chair of the Falls Church City School Board.