Jones Presents Stark Choices to F.C. School Board in Budget Deliberation

PRESIDENT OF THE FALLS CHURCH Education Association Amanda Blanchard (right) spoke in favor of full salary and step increases for all members of the City schools’ teachers and staff in the first School Board work session on the new budget Tuesday night. (Photo: News-Press)


Going beyond the three low-growth options she presented to the School Board just two weeks ago, Falls Church School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones added a grim zero growth option to her choices as the board began its deliberations with its first budget work session Tuesday.

The option exhibited no salary increases for anyone in the system and the elimination of four positions that would be little short of catastrophic for the system that is primarily challenged by its need to compete with surrounding jurisdictions for the addition or retention of good teachers.
Jones told the board that a math teacher she thought was set to come into the system was lost at the very last minute in September simply because the F.C. schools could not match the salary offer from neighboring Arlington.

She presented a spreadsheet showing that enrollment growth continues to be expected to rise faster than for any surrounding jurisdiction, as well. The number this fall is expected to be 2,505, or 95 more than were enrolled by last September 30, and the number will consistently rise to top 3,000 by 2021, according to projections prepared by the Weldon-Cooper Center last fall. Weldon-Cooper has been effectively spot on with its growth projections for the Falls Church system over recent years.

The cost-per-pupil data shows the Falls Church system, at $16,991 for 2014, is behind Arlington and even with Alexandria.

The City’s system has the highest average SAT scores in the region, leading in all categories and a total average of 1,773 and the system also has the highest rate of senior participation at 80 percent.

The Falls Church system also has the highest graduation rate (98.4 percent) among the ten school systems in the region of four-year students, and the highest percentage of graduating students going on to post-secondary education (93.6 percent).

But on the other end of the student spectrum, Jones cited efforts to meet the challenges of “special needs” students, as well, noting that “we can hold them in the program until age 22 if needed.” She added, “We’re a small system, so we literally know every student.”

The teacher per class size info shows the City’s system has average sizes of 21.9 for its elementary, 24.3 for middle school and 19.5 for high school. The latter number is the lowest in the region. Taking comparable education providers into the numbers (ESOL and ESL teachers, librarians, reading assistants, coaches, mentors, music, art and physical education personnel), the average classroom size numbers drop in Falls Church to 13 for elementary, 16.9 for middle school and 13.6 for high school, the latter again being by far the lowest in the region.

Not surprisingly, most of the focus of the new data Dr. Jones and Chief Financial Officer Hunter Kimble presented to the board involved comparing existing salaries with neighboring jurisdictions, since the success of the system most fundamentally hinges on the quality of its teachers and staff.
Compared to the neighboring Arlington system, Falls Church’s salary schedule is behind in almost every category, except for entry levels. The variances run as high as $17,743 for senior bachelor’s degree teachers and at many levels is more than $10,000.

The hourly rates offered by the City system for entry level support, such as in food service, is better than Alexandria and Fairfax. Fairfax offers new food service personnel only $8.94 per hour, while Falls Church offers $12.38 and is behind Arlington and Loudoun in that category.

From every position from high school principal, starting salary and maximum salary, the City system is somewhere in the middle among its surrounding jurisdictions.

With the limitations offered to salary growth in all the scenarios presented by Dr. Jones from the zero-growth option to one calling for a 5.9 percent increase in the City’s transfer to the schools, School Board Chair Justin Castillo quipped, “It seems like we’re confronted by ‘which flavor of bad do you want?’

“We’re happy to run as many scenarios as you want us to,” Jones said.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, a brief public hearing was held, and three of the speakers all favored full support for salary and “step” hikes for teachers and staff.

They included Amanda Blanchard of the Falls Church Education Association, Steve Padilla, director of the facilities’ security services, and Katie Clinton, the director of the day care program.

Additional hearings will be held on Feb. 7 and 10, prior to the School Board’s vote on the budget it will forward to City Manager Wyatt Shields, who will roll it into his recommended budget to the City Council in mid-March, with the Council arriving at its final overall budget, including any changes in the tax rates, before the end of April to go into effect July 1.