On Tuesday, January 13, our school superintendent will present recommendations for the FY2016 operating budget to the School Board at its monthly meeting in the City Council Chambers. As requested by the Board, she will present several options for the community’s consideration. One will demonstrate what is needed to operate an excellent school division in the face of rising enrollment, and another will align with what some members of City Council have requested.
Before we begin the budget discussion I’d like to respond to a few concerns that I am hearing in the community.
Some say that our schools have become too expensive. While educating children these days is not cheap, we are not spending more in Falls Church than we have in the past. Nor are we spending more than our neighbors. In fact, the schools’ share of expenditures as a percentage of City revenues is the same proportion as it has been for many years. The average since FY2005 is about 45%; this year it’s about 46%, and last year it was about 44%. On a per-student basis, we are spending about 17% less now than we spent in FY2008 in constant dollars. We also don’t spend excessively compared to our neighbors. Arlington spends roughly 46-47% of its budget on schools, while the schools’ share in Fairfax County it is about 51-52%.
Others want the schools to charge tuition or receive lower funding because they benefit less than a majority of the households in the City. It is true that not all families in the City have children in the schools, but we have a constitutional obligation to provide and maintain “a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age” that is of “high quality.” Moreover, the schools ultimately do benefit everyone by enriching our community life and increasing the value of our homes. Our school facilities host dozens of community events each month that are open to the public; many people who do not have children in the schools attend concerts, plays, and sporting events as well as volunteer for the schools; and the schools coordinate many programs for students to participate in community service. Equally important, the excellence of our schools contributes to higher property values here in the City. For years real estate agents have said that people are willing to pay a premium to live in Falls Church because of our schools. Looking at Zillow.com this appears to be true. Comparing Falls Church City (zip code 22046) with neighboring Fairfax County (zip code 22043) I see that the median home value in Falls Church is about 21% higher than just outside our borders in Fairfax. Also, home values here have appreciated more rapidly than in Fairfax – 26% in Falls Church since 2004 as compared with 16% in Fairfax. This past year alone home values in Falls Church City increased by 8.8%, compared to 4.4% in Fairfax. These homes in Fairfax have access to the same shopping, transportation, recreation, and other amenities as we do here. What’s different? The schools. Our excellent schools help our homeowners build significant wealth via their homes.
Finally, some say that our schools are no better than our neighbors’. A fundamental way to measure the excellence of a school division, and the one that the School Board tracks most closely, is the graduation rate. That is because it shows how the school division performs for every student rather than just the most advanced ones. According to the Virginia Department of Education, the on time graduation rate for Falls Church is 98.4%, which is materially better than Arlington’s rate of 92% and Fairfax’s rate of 92.9%. Also, looking at how broadly the division offers challenging learning opportunities to every student, at George Mason 66% of students take at least 1 AP, IB or college level class for credit. At Mclean it is 45%, and at Marshall it is 30%. These are just two examples of our excellence. We don’t get these results by accident, we get them because we provide pre-K services to every child who needs them so that they are ready for kindergarten; we provide full day kindergarten for every child; our IB curriculum teaches every child critical thinking and problem solving skills; and every child in Falls Church is ready to learn because we make sure they are not hungry and have access to the tools they need to learn at school and at home.
Ultimately, what makes an education in Falls Church unique is also what makes our City unique: the intimacy that comes from living in a smaller jurisdiction. Our small size has continued to give Falls Church schools their unique character and made it possible for each child to receive the personal attention they need to succeed at a reasonable cost to the community.
Susan Kearney is the chair of the Falls Church City School Board.