Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: It’s Groundhog Day in the City of Falls Church

From the reporting in the News-Press, I see that the annual budget “battle” between the School Board and the City Council is gearing up yet again. If history is any guide, people will get angry, recriminations will fly – and no important strategic decisions will be made for the City or the schools. City politics is looking more and more like the U.S. Congress all the time.

Many years ago, I joined the Council at an extremely low point in Council-School Board relations. I (along with a lot of other people) worked hard to repair that relationship. Among other things, I was the chair of the Council-School Board Working Group when we had to take away the School Board’s long-standing practice of accumulating multiple years of fund balances outside the normal budget. That was a hard change for the schools that greatly impacted their budgeting processes and planning. (Anyone who thinks that the schools “always get their way” was obviously not around at that time.)

But we talked openly and honestly, and completely revised the school budgeting process to make it clearer and easier for everyone to understand. We also stopped focusing on irrelevancies – like the pavilion above the football field – and started talking more about real, hard issues, like personnel pension and benefit costs. We built trust and tip-toed our way toward looking at the long-term strategic challenges facing the school’s finances.

But something got lost again along the way. In particular, someone got the bright idea to make the tax rate the School Board’s problem – and to show how “fiscally responsible” the Council is by engaging in battle with the School Board over its budget analysis. That is not only silly, I think it is downright dangerous for the City.

The fact is that there really is no reason for the two groups to fight over the annual budget, because the roles and issues are pretty simple and clear. First, it is not the role of the School Board to consider the tax rate implications of their budget. They are supposed to decide the amount of funding that is needed to maintain (and maybe even improve) the quality of the school system. Since something like 80% of school costs are related to personnel (and the rest has stayed flat for a very long time), the School Board’s only really material decisions are (i) how many teachers are needed to maintain class size, and (ii) analyze the market for good teachers and make an informed pay recommendation. Frankly, the rest of the budget is pretty much rounding error. (Not that it stops people from talking more about those issues than about teacher pay and benefits.)

The City Council’s role is also pretty clear. They need to decide whether the citizens will support the required tax rate increases or not. The Council cannot (by law) tell the School Board how to spend its money – and there is not much to second guess about its salary market analysis. The information is all public. The Council can’t expect the School Board to bail them out of a hard political call. The citizens like our teachers, and like to keep them by paying them at least the going rate. It is also true that our citizens don’t like to pay higher taxes. It was ever thus and there is simply is no easy answer to the conflict between those two strong desires. But running for office implies a willingness to decide hard things, and no amount of School Board-Council conflict or endless late night meetings will take away that obligation. So I would suggest that the Council skip the theatrics and call a ball or strike.

Avoiding needless conflict over the budget is important because there are genuinely important and hard things that need to be decided by both bodies – and those decisions will require trust and cooperative work on an ongoing basis. In fact, the schools present a whole range of existential challenges for the City. For example, how do we deal with the fact that the school system continues to grow very fast, and primarily because of turnover in existing housing stock rather than new construction? When and how are we going to build a new high school? What happens to the financial viability of the City if the schools become over-crowded – or just aren’t great? If fighting about teacher pay and a couple of cents on the tax rate makes it harder to effectively deal with these issues, then we will certainly lose the forest for the trees.

So all I can do is beg our elected officials (on both bodies) to please spend much more time on the truly important issues, and spare us the pointless annual budget fireworks.


David Chavern is a former member of the Falls Church City Council.