By a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Falls Church School Board Tuesday night formally adopted its Fiscal Year 2016 budget that calls for a 5.3 percent increase in its request for a transfer from the City, nearly identical to the numbers they mulled a week ago.
The budget is for $46,718,400 including a transfer of $38,693,900. The biggest component of the increase is in teacher salary hikes, based on a four-year schedule to bring them to a competitive level with the City’s neighboring Arlington County.
Everyone on board, including Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones, concurred that keeping to the schedule is key to both attracting and retaining quality teachers. Structural increases and a more modest enrollment growth this school year account for the rest of the increase.
Included in the 86-page budget document (that can be viewed in its entirety on the School Board’s website) are graphs which show that the City schools’ salary structures are behind Arlington in every single category, including by as much as $21,205 and $16,936 in comparable categories.
The School Board’s support for its budget was buoyed by the results of a poll that was assembled and circulated beginning two weeks ago. It wound up attracting 997 respondents, and among the questions answered, 730 of them (80.43 percent) said that they chose Falls Church as their home because of its school system (respondents were invited to check more than one category and also provided a strong score for “location” at 68.47 percent and “small town feel” at 50.61 percent).
But most important to the School Board was the question about whether the poll takers would be willing to pay more taxes to close the gap for the teaching staff and to keep classes small. This is the central issue for this budget, and 57.13 percent answered “yes” compared to 21.26 and 21.61 percent who said they “weren’t sure.”
In terms of priorities, the poll takers placed “retaining and recruiting excellent teachers and staff” ahead of all other categories, including “strong curriculum” and “reasonable class size,” “small school system” and “modern facilities.”
The budget document includes graphs comparing the City schools’ salary rates based on years in the system and levels of educational achievement to Arlington, graphs which show the City behind in most areas and very behind in many salary categories.
The budget’s transfer request from the City must, by law, be taken whole by Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields as he now begins crafting his own budget recommendation to the City Council that he will present this Monday night. He and Chief Financial Officer Richard LaCondre told the School Board earlier that to avoid passing a tax rate increase onto citizens this year, the school board budget would have to be limited to between a zero and two-percent increase.
Shields’ budget, with the size of the school board’s request, will be unable to propose a zero tax rate increase when it is presented this Monday, though the final decision will be up to the City Council that has until the end of April to finalize the next fiscal year budget.
Tuesday night, School Board member Kieran Sharpe, who served on the City Council in the 1990s, said that he “disagrees with the ‘facts’ the City is focused on,” noting it is “very, very unrealistic to expect zero-growth,” and that “the commitment of the community to the schools” is an important fact, “even if it means a tax rate increase.”
Other aspects of the community input survey affirmed the public’s strongly felt need for the construction of a new high school, and of the premier role of the Falls Church News-Press as a source of information about the school system. According to the poll, the FCNP is by far the number one source of information for community members with no children in the school system (including those who formerly had children in the system), and second only to the schools’ online “morning announcements” for those with children currently in the schools.