At its work session to provide budget guidance to Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, the School Board dismissed the express desire of the City Council to contain growth in its annual budget to 1.5 or 2.5 percent. It instead urged her to, in the words of chair Susan Kearney, “Bring us what you think is required to run the kind of school system we need.”
The sentiment was shared by all members of the School Board present Tuesday night. They cited the landslide victory for the Mt. Daniel School bond referendum passed last month as evidence the community wants the quality of the schools maintained and is willing to pay for that.
Monday night, at a meeting of the “Gang of Eight” City Council and School Board representatives, Mayor David Tarter said to Kearney and Superintendent Jones “there is a strong feeling to keep the tax rate flat,” adding “while we’re all for economic development, in the meantime we have to live within our means.”
His urging to Kearney and other School Board representatives there was swiftly dismissed by Kearney, who instead stressed the goals of the school system being to maintain class sizes and competitive teacher compensation.
She said that the goal on the latter policy is to minimally stay within five percent of the salaries offered in neighboring jurisdictions like Arlington and Fairfax counties. “We’re losing teachers to Arlington when they can pay $15-17,000 more,” Superintendent Jones chimed in.
Kearney said that holding the school board budget to 1.5 or 2.5 percent “will barely take care of utilities and health care costs, alone.” Enrollment growth within the system continues, even if not this year at the torrid pace of the last few years.
At Tuesday’s School Board work session, Vice Chair Justin Castillo and Lawrence Webb cited the referendum vote last month, and suggested that the public needs to be brought into the budget discussion on what it’s willing to pay for to keep quality schools.
Board member Kieran Sharpe noted, “We’ve been operating with a lot of constraints as good soldiers all along, and still we’re being told we may, may be able to consider funding a new high school in five years.”
It may be time, he suggested, to remove all non-school projects from the City’s capital improvement projects (CIP) priorities (such as City Hall and library renovations–ed.).” Castillo added the idea of a structured garage by the library at a cost of $25,000 per parking space “is insane,” Castillo added.
Superintendent Jones’ recommended budget for the coming fiscal year (beginning next July 1) is due to be presented to the School Board on January 13, It follows by one day a City Council meeting to formally adopt “guidance” for the budget deliberations that will not conclude until a complete budget for FY16 has been adopted with general government, schools and capital improvements accounted for on April 27.
Taking Dr. Jones’ recommendations, the School Board adopts its budget on February 24, and by law the City Manager is required to include that in its entirety in his recommended budget due March 9.
Then it is up to the City Council to hold work sessions and public hearings to hammer out the budget. A key element will be the annual official real estate assessments that will be announced in early February. Anticipating what those will be has led the Council to be restrictive in its projections for the budget.