In a marked departure from the norm, Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones Tuesday night presented not one, but three alternative options to the School Board as her guidance for the coming budget cycle. Being three, they could not be called, as per tradition, her “recommendation,” but her astute observations on what would result from different budget bottom lines.
None of the options meets the F.C. City Council’s guidelines for the coming year, which range from permitting a two percent increase in the School Board’s budget to a “zero growth” budget as adopted by the Council in its meeting Monday night.
So, all of Superintendent Jones’ choices will run afoul of the City Council’s expectations, and with new leadership at the helm of the School Board, it promises to make for “interesting” times in the months ahead.
Justin Castillo was elected Tuesday to replace Susan Kearney, who declined to seek another term, as the chair of the School Board by a 5-2 vote (John Lawrence getting two). For those who might have thought Kearney was a hardliner for full funding of the School Board requests in the past, they might be surprised to find what could be in store with Castillo, who recently suggested that all City capital expenditures – including for library and City Hall expansions and renovations – should be subordinated to key school capital projects.
Dr. Jones’ three alternatives came down to these: one with a 5.9 percent growth in the City’s transfer to the budget over last year that adds no new teachers or staff, but also does not cut any positions, one with a 4.3 percent City transfer growth that would result in a reduction of five full-time equivalent positions, and one with a 2.4 percent City transfer growth that would require the reduction of 10 full-time equivalent teaching jobs.
These three choices came after Jones made a strong case for why there was almost no other leeway in the budget. Option One calls for a change in overall revenues and spending for the schools of $2,258,200. Option Two calls for an increase of $1,666,900, and Option Three calls for an increase of $969,700.
With a penny on the real estate tax rate in Falls Church worth about $300,000, these options are likely to be seen as burdensome by many taxpayers here.
However, as usual, there was little if any fluff in the budget as presented. It was shown to be lean and frugal, with only “needs based” elements included, and no wish list items.
Dr. Jones said that she developed the options based on School Board guidance that had been provided earlier: 1. be thoughtful and mindful of our community, 2. stay true to the work plan which was guided by our community through a Community Visioning process and 3. only ask for what it takes to maintain great schools.
They involve, she said, “the use of technology to connect to the world, the preparation of our students as work and career ready, and their preparation for careers which do not exist today.”
“Great schools,” she continued, “bolster student engagement with a strong culture and climate, foster collaboration, communication and creativity, provide equity and access for all students, and prepare students for the modern world.”
Adjusting for inflation, she noted, the City transfer per pupil now is 17 percent less than in Fiscal Year 2007, even as school enrollment continues to grow. While the enrollment growth this year was at half the pace of the previous number of years, she said there is no evidence to show that it will continue to slow, and expert projections of a number of regional growth factors portend a restoration of previous growth rates in the next two years.
Over the last five years, Falls Church schools have grown at a faster rate than Arlington and Fairfax, and there has been a consistent upward trending of enrollment over the last 30 years.
Fixed costs in the budget include $3.6 million for the Virginia Retirement System, $303,280 for the City retirement plan, $3.315 for health insurance, adding to $7.750 million, an increase of $344,990 over this current budget year.
Also, maintaining small class sizes and managing aging facilities are priorities, as is mentoring new staff, since the system is “adding new staff faster than ever in our history” and as “the craft of teaching is changing more rapidly than ever in our history.”
Closing the gap on teacher pay is another priority as the City’s schools continue to lag behind its neighbors, in some cases seriously (those with bachelors degrees plus 18 credits get $21,205 less after 15 years in F.C. than they do in Arlington, for example).
The core budget Dr. Jones presented includes $278,440 in savings from realignments of resources (including the reduction of 1.5 paraprofessional positions), and $422,000 in contributions from the community through the BIE Partnerships, the Falls Church Education Foundation, athletic fees and parking fees. Omitted from the superintendent’s budget request is a total of $1,840,200 in additional staff, maintenance and custodial equipment, vehicles, and professional development.
The first work session on the School Board budget will be on January 27 at 7 p.m. at the School Board’s Central Office, 800 W. Broad St. It will be followed by public hearings on Feb. 7 and 10.