In this space last week, guest commentators Juergen Tooren and Johannah Barry raised a number of questions about the Mount Daniel bond referendum, the City’s capital allocation process (CIP), and the fairness of the capital allocation process to the community. While I agree with some of the points they raise, I do not agree with others.
With what do I agree? I agree that the City Council, after getting input from the community, should let citizens know how it plans to finance the interest and repayment of the bond for the Mount Daniel expansion and modernization and for other capital improvement projects. I understand from conversations with members of City Council that they are having those discussions right now and have confidence that they will bring an answer to the community shortly.
I also agree that the community at large should feel that the right capital projects are sequenced and funded in the right order, and that they should reflect the City’s values, priorities, character, and vision for the future. Given that the city was founded on a platform of better education for the children, school projects certainly reflect the values, priorities, and vision for our community. The City Council makes these important decisions each year with input from the community, the Planning Commission, the City Council, the School Board, and staff. In fact, the FY2016 capital planning process will begin in just a few weeks.
I do not agree that using a single five-year CIP, in this case FY2015-2019, as the basis for a determination that capital allocations are unfair – that is, skewed unreasonably toward the schools – and don’t benefit the greater community is valid. This is for three reasons.
First, this single five-year CIP cannot be seen as a proxy for the City’s capital investment strategy over time. Making judgments about our capital strategy based on a single 5-year view is like evaluating someone’s diet based on what they ate today. A longer-term perspective is more insightful. Analyzing the City’s capital expenditures over the past 10 years (FY2005-2014) we find that only 21% of funds have been invested in school projects. Taking this longer view, it does not appear that we are investing disproportionately in school projects.
Second, the FY2015-2019 capital plan includes about $100 million for a new high school, a breathtaking figure for our small community. The City Council and City Manager have made clear that unless a new revenue stream is created (i.e. not personal property taxes) which will substantively pay for the school this project will not go forward. This new revenue stream will come from commercial development of 10 acres of school – and some city – owned land at the George Mason site. The GM/MEH Steering Committee has been working for some months to determine how to make this a reality. Thus you should remove this project from the CIP. When you do, you find that only about 50% of the funds in the current CIP are targeted to school projects, not the 67% referenced Mr. Toorn and Ms. Barry. This does not seem unreasonably weighted toward school facilities.
Finally, I disagree with the authors’ assertion that investments in our schools have no benefit to the majority of our community. In addition to our civic and constitutional obligation to provide every child with an education, there are both economic and community benefits to every citizen of Falls Church from investing in our schools. Many community organizations hold meetings and forums in the facilities; citizens routinely use the athletic fields for exercise; and many community members attend student performances and volunteer in our schools. There are also significant economic benefits of our excellent school system to all property owners. Real estate professionals tell us that homes in the City of Falls Church sell for 15-20 percent more than similar properties in adjacent jurisdictions. Data collected by school staff as a part of the budget process supports what these agents and brokers are seeing.
At the end of the day, I hope the citizens of Falls Church will evaluate the Mount Daniel bond referendum on its own merits. We must modernize the facility in order to meet federal Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, making the school accessible to handicapped students, staff, and parents. We must also expand the school because we are out of space. Every classroom is full and, as of this year, we are using both the library and the music room for classes. We also have children in trailers on the campus. Based on our forecasts, enrollment growth will continue for a number of years.
If you have thoughts or questions about the Mount Daniel referendum, please reach out to me at [email protected] or get the facts from the school division website at www.fccps.org.
Susan Kearney is chair of the Falls Church City School Board.