F.C. Council Votes 4-3 to Fund Schools, Raise Taxes 1 Cent

GEORGE MASON HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER Joel Block testified for the full funding of the school budget before the F.C. City Council Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)
GEORGE MASON HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER Joel Block testified for the full funding of the school budget before the F.C. City Council Monday night. (Photo: News-Press)

In a dramatic late night vote Monday, the Falls Church City Council voted 4-3 to fully fund the School Board budget request by raising the real estate tax rate a penny to $1.315 in the final adoption of the coming fiscal year budget. The outcome was achieved by a vote switch by Councilman Dan Sze to approve a budget of $83 million.

On a first vote to cut the school budget by $340,000 and hold the tax rate (at $1.305 per $100 assessed valuation) where is was, the motion failed by 4-3. But then Councilman Nader Baroukh said he’d also not vote for the other option, one to raise the tax rate a penny and fully fund the schools.

After some tense moments, both Sze and Baroukh asked the City Attorney what the impact of an abstention would be and Councilman Phil Duncan made an impassioned speech reiterating his commitment to no tax rate hike. Then the new vote was taken, and Baroukh voted “No” along with the others who’d voted “Yes” for no rate hike, but Sze switched his vote so the motion passed, 4-3.

When asked by the News-Press why he switched his vote, Sze said, “Because we had to have a budget. It would have been unconscionable not to adopt a budget.” That was because, had he not switched his vote, both budget options on the table would have failed, leaving the Council likely to have been forced to take the unprecedented move of postponing its action beyond the end of April.

Postponement of the vote Monday night was a position that some citizens favored, those opposed to the budget hike and full school funding, as they stated in petitions and letters to the Council. It would have introduced an element of destabilization that could have caused the whole budget process to unravel. Sze’s move prevented that.

The stubborn sticking point of the tax rate and the level of school funding, which has been like a broken record for so many City budget deliberations in the last quarter century (the News-Press’ first hand knowledge goes back 25 years to when the paper first got its start), did not get resolved until the last minute Monday night even though the impact of the conflict had been diminished by savings found over the course of the budget deliberations dating back to February this year.

The process began when the School Board forwarded a formal budget request of a 5.3 percent budget increase to the City Manager. This followed a month of careful vetting of the schools’ needs by the School Board that included allowing five teacher positions to be lost to attrition.

When City Manager Wyatt Shields took the School Board request and applied it, as required by law, to his own budget recommendation to the City Council, the result was Shields’ assessment that a four cent increase in the real estate tax rate would be needed to balance that budget – an increase from $1.305 to $1.345.

This set off one of the angrier and least civil discourses on the budget in years, even if much of it took place in blogs online, and in comments and emails to the Council.

Some of it spilled over into the public comments Monday night, including when former City Council member Ira Kaylin, denounced “egregious misjudgments made” by the City Council that cost, he claimed, around $2.5 million, and promised he would submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petitions for access to financial documents. Others also assailed an alleged “lack of transparency” in certain budget matters.

F.C. School Board Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones countered against what she called “a bunch of gossip” on some blogs, citing the results of an independent audit of what was found to be a very lean administrative organization.

School Board member John Lawrence reminded the Council that 85 percent of the School Board budget goes to “people” (teacher and staff salaries and benefits) and that with the $340,000 cut from the board’s request “will mean people.” The Council was told that it would result in four more teacher layoffs, or a total of nine by next September. School Board chair Justin Castillo added, “The idea the schools are eating the City alive is not supported by the facts.”

Among the citizens who spoke in favor of Option 1 (no tax hike and cut the school request) were former Council member Johannah Barry, Linda Neighborgall, Mark Kaye, Evelyn Moore, Mark Quaid, Pat Gianelli and Alison and David Kutchma. Among those who spoke for Option 2 (one cent tax hike and fully fund the schools) were Gary Hill, Joel Block, Letty Hardi, Amanda Blanchard and Lindy Hockenberry.

F.C.’s Chief Financial Officer Richard LaCondre reported to the Council that the current fiscal year budget, which runs through the end of June, is “beginning to flatten,” with a $349,000 deficit “as of 5 p.m. today.” However, while Councilman Baroukh expressed concern about this, Duncan noted that the City’s undesignated fund balance is at the top of the City’s policy level, at just below 17 percent of the annual operating budget number, and that making up even an $800,000 deficit from the current fiscal year would be made up by tapping that fund balance in a manner that would still leave it at over 15 percent.

But while Duncan said he favored keep the tax rate even, Vice Mayor David Snyder said that both options – for the level tax rate and for a one cent increase that would fully fund the schools – are wrought with problems. “But at least Option 2 does not lay off any teachers,” he said. “And if the schools go downhill, our City is washed up, finished, done.”

Council member Karen Oliver said that “it is irresponsible to hold the tax rate flat just to hold the tax rate flat. We undervalue and underpay our teachers,” and said she favored Option 2.

Council member Marybeth Connelly said she didn’t like Option 2, “but it is better than Option 1.” She appealed to the citizens to “upgrade their discourse” on the budget, and said, “The power of kindness is immense.”

Mayor Tarter said that he would hold to the commitment to “live within our means” as stated at the beginning of this budget cycle, and said he was satisfied to give the schools “99 percent of what they asked for.”

Then the vote on Option 1 took place, and when Baroukh cast the last vote, it failed, 4-3. But not before he quickly added that he would not vote for Option 2, either.

So that led to a motion for Option 2, and the vote repeated the pattern of the first vote, except that Baroukh voted no again. Then, with the last vote, Sze voted yes, and the matter was finally settled.

Much of the full house that had been present through much of the evening, cheering and applauding all the citizen speakers depending on which position they spoke in favor of, had left by the late hour, so that the reaction to the surprise Sze vote was much less raucous than it might have been earlier in the night.