Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: What Are Your Priorities This Budget Season & Beyond?

By Justin Castillo

Budgets reflect priorities, which makes the budget season a good time to reflect on and discuss the future of the City of Falls Church. When I say “The City,” I don’t distinguish between “the schools” and “the City;” we’re all in this together.

As the new Chair of the School Board, I would like to discuss three issues: the budget for the next fiscal year, planning for the George Mason High School and Mary Ellen Henderson site, and how you can make your voice heard in these processes.

The Budget: The Virginia Constitution requires us to provide “free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age” and to “seek to ensure that an educational program of high quality is established and continually maintained.” But the School Board doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The City Council must approve the amount of our proposed budget, Board members are accountable to the voters, and we pay taxes like everyone else. We strive to balance budgetary constraints with our constitutional obligations. In this age of rising enrollments and tight budgets, that means doing more with less: the FY15 per-student City transfer (in constant dollars) is 17 percent lower than what it was in FY07.

This year, the City Manager and the City Council asked us to consider a zero-growth budget, which comprises one of three budget scenarios now under consideration.

Adopting a zero-growth budget would not be possible without serious, painful and harmful cuts to programs, and/or increases in class size. This is because of the forces that now drive Falls Church City Public Schools expenditures: rising enrollments to levels not seen since the mid-‘60s, the teacher pay gap, fixed costs, and aging facilities. First, enrollments will rise at projected rate of 4 percent annually (which translates into 100 new students next year). While enrollment growth this year was 1.4 percent, this was an anomaly (this year neighboring jurisdictions saw growth rates closer to 4 percent). Because of lower-than-expected enrollment growth, none of the three proposed budget scenarios calls for hiring new teachers.

The second budget driver is closing the teacher pay gap to within 3-5 percent of what Arlington County pays. Arlington competes with us for teaching talent. While pay rates are relatively comparable for starting teachers, we lose experienced teachers, who can make $15-20,000 more by moving to Arlington. We need to keep these excellent, seasoned, teachers. Last year we began a four-year plan to close these pay gaps. The plan is targeted and provides increases for specific staff members in varying amounts to close the significant gaps. Implementing the second year of this effort would add an estimated $1,634,310 to the budget for our 248 teachers.

The third budget element – fixed costs – include health insurance and retirement (adding $260,830 to the budget), as well as maintenance costs crucial to address aging facilities, especially at George Mason – the oldest school in our system.

The George Mason/Mary Ellen Henderson Site. People often ask: “What’s going on with George Mason, and when are we going to start talking about it?” Your chance is coming soon – and I urge you to participate.

In 2014, the City Council and the School Board created a George Mason High School/Mary Ellen Henderson Steering Committee to create a process to redevelop the 34-acre site after the water system sale brought the school site within City boundaries. We have two goals: 1) replace our sprawling, 60 year-old high school; and 2) develop up to 10 acres to help pay for the school while jump-starting economic development. The Steering Committee studied whether these two goals were feasible. The answer from experts in school and urban development was a resounding “yes.”

This year, the Steering Committee plans to hold visioning sessions in the spring to get input from the entire community about their priorities for a new high school and its role in the community (including ideas such as a pool, performing arts space or other shared-use facilities.). We’ll also be issuing a Request for Proposals for consulting services to help the Steering Committee advance the process and seeking input from parties interested in participating in the development process.

Community Participation and Input. So how can you make your voice heard? If you’re interested in this year’s budget, come to our meetings or send me or another Board member an email. We want input from everyone in the community about their thoughts about class size, unmet needs, teacher pay, specific programs, or facilities.

As for the Mason and Henderson site, the Steering Committee meets most (but not all) Thursdays at 7:30 a.m. Check FCCPS.org for details. And look for more information about visioning sessions soon. In the meantime, the League of Women Voters of Falls Church has an excellent report from their November Mason and Henderson visioning.