At its work session Tuesday night, the Falls Church School Board appeared to narrow its options for its budget request of transfer from the City to near a five percent increase, setting up what could be another major clash with the City Council, which has the final say on the budget numbers and has called for a zero growth school board budget in order to avoid having to impose a real estate tax rate increase.
School Board member Susan Kearney summed it up Tuesday when she said, “It appears to be the School Board philosophy for this budget to ask for what we need…The City Council wants a flat budget (from us), but salaries are below our neighbors for so many of our teachers that we have to address that.”
She noted the study showing that City general government employees are being paid comparably to their Fairfax and Arlington County counterparts, “but our teachers are not.”
She said if the School Board decides to narrow its requested increase to maintaining competitiveness on teacher salaries, “there’s sympathy for this,” she said.
The School Board will vote on its budget next week which will be forwarded to City Manager Wyatt Shields, who will fold it into his budget recommendations to the City Council on March 8, and the City Council will determine the final numbers for the new fiscal year beginning July 1 at the end of April.
But at a public event held in the cafetorium of the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School last week hosted by local school system PTAs, not a single member of the City Council was present to hear Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones spell out why the schools need a significant increase in the City’s fund transfer to the schools to maintain quality and competitiveness.
The School Board this Tuesday narrowed its options from the three presented by Dr. Jones last month that included options for smaller increases and one at 5.9 percent, which was Dr. Jones’ recommendation for optimal funding of school system “needs,” not counting $1.8 million in “wants.” (When Dr. Jones added a fourth scenario at a work session earlier this month, the zero growth option that some on the City Council have said they want, the impact was so draconian, calling for the elimination of 20.5 “full time equivalent” teacher positions, that the School Board swiftly dismissed it).
Jones indicated this Tuesday that, in the uphill effort to remain competitive with Arlington on teacher salaries, limits to the size of the schools’ budget will need to be met with teacher layoffs, rather than salary setbacks.
The challenge for competitiveness with Arlington has been illustrated by graphs that compare teacher salaries based on years of experience and levels of education, and nothing else. They show that except for entry level salaries, the City’s systems lags behind in almost every category, with variances running as high as $17,743 for senior bachelor’s degree teachers and at many levels is more than $10,000.
The board Tuesday also discussed options to the $90,000 needed to buy a new bus, suggesting that the establishment of a so-called “sinking fund” that saves up for the lease-purchases of buses and other vehicles could be easier on a tight budget even if slightly more costly over time.
While the School Board’s Kieran Sharpe noted that the City government has also expressed interest in such a fund, there has been no progress on that end, and he now thinks the School Board ought to go for it alone. This is the third year that it has been discussed with the City, he said, without results.
Concerning a lease-purchase of new buses, compared to outright purchases, the School’s chief financial officer Hunter Kimble said, “We’ve done it before, we can do it again.”
“The return on investment of keeping good teachers is immeasurable,” Jones told the PTA-sponsored community forum last week. She noted that 85.5 percent of the schools’ budget goes to teacher salaries and benefits.
When the School Board began its plan to restore the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, it began “dead last” in the region, she said.
At the same PTA forum last week, F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields indicated that minus any real estate tax rate increase, the projection now is that the City will have only a 1.1 percent “allowable growth” in its revenue stream for the coming year.
He said the City’s current real estate tax rate, at $1.305 per $100 of assessed valuation, is in the middle of the pack of other jurisdictions in the region, with the highest being Manassas Park’s $1.65 rate.
This is all despite significant commercial real estate development underway in the City and the net $20 million cash windfall from the sale of the City’s water system last year.
He blamed the effects of federal government sequestration on the economy of the larger region, saying it has caused the area to face “serious headwinds.” He noted that data showing that among U.S. states’ annual economic growth rates, Virginia now rates 48th, Maryland 49th and the District of Columbia 51st.
According to his calculations, the City’s revenues for the coming year amount to about $411,000, while the School Board is closing in on a request for transfer of funds from the City that will be around $1.8 million.