The City of Falls Church spends the second highest amount of money on its students in the Washington, D.C. region, according to a report recently released by the Washington Area Board of Education. Falls Church City, which will spend $18,032 per student in fiscal year 2016, is second to Arlington County, which will spend $18,616 per student in fiscal year 2016.
The amount that Falls Church is spending on its students has steadily risen from $16,991 in fiscal year 2014, whereas Arlington County, which has perennially had the highest per student spending rate has stayed relatively flat.
Dr. Toni Jones, superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools, attributed the increase in spending per student to the desire to increase teacher compensation and maintain class sizes.
“That is a directly related to the School Board’s work plan and the priorities of the community to increase teacher compensation to be competitive and to maintain class sizes,” Jones said. “When you see that dollar amount what you’re really seeing is that 85 percent of our budget goes to staff salaries and wages and benefits. Everything else is relatively flat.
“So when you’re talking about a per student amount that means that we are compensating our teachers competitively to get the best and the brightest in Falls Church. And we want to maintain class size so we have to hire more teachers to keep class sizes at 20 for elementary and at 24 for middle school and high school.”
Several members of the Falls Church community have expressed concern with the amount of money being budgeted for schools, specifically on teacher salaries.
Falls Church City, which has an average teacher salary and benefits package of $109,934 for fiscal year 2016, is second in the region to Montgomery County, which has an average salary and benefits package of $111,860. Arlington County is third in the region with an average salary and benefits package of $108,368.
“When the School Board looked three years ago at where we were in the region with salaries…. We were almost dead last in the region for beginning salaries, we were almost dead last in the region for our high end salaries,” Jones said. “And we were kind of in the middle of the pack for the salaries for teachers that had 10, 11 or 12 years of experience.”
Although, Jones said, Falls Church City school teacher compensation was in the middle of the pack in terms of mid-career educators, there was a gap of $22,000 when compared with neighboring school systems. “When a teacher can go right next door, when you’re talking about $15,000 or $20,000, it’s a significant enough amount of money that if they have kids in college or they have daycare expenses, it makes a difference.
“And it doesn’t mean we have to be dollar-for-dollar because Falls Church is a great community and we have a lot of resources other districts don’t have, but the School Board wanted to make sure that we were in 3 – 5 percent of the highest salary in the region. That’s our goal.”
For the fiscal year 2016, Falls Church City’s salary for teachers who are just starting out with a bachelor’s degree is $49,350, which leads the region. Falls Church also leads the region in compensation for teachers who are just starting out with a master’s degree with a salary of $54,750.
“It was very intentional. We were almost last in the region,” Jones said. “But to close that gap and to really be competitive and get the best coming out of college it was only about $3,000. It wasn’t $15,000 or $20,000, so that was the easiest gap to close. And we think that’s a big recruitment tool for young people just coming out of college who really want to go to the best school division.”
In the Washington Area Board of Education report there was a correlation between school districts that spent more per pupil and compensated its teachers better and test scores. Four out of the five school districts who either spent the most on a per pupil basis or spent the most on compensating teachers had the highest scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the region.
Falls Church City boasted the highest average score on the test and the highest percentage of seniors taking the test in the region. Jones said that spending on students and teacher compensation were not the only reasons for the high achievement of students in the Falls Church City Public School system.
“I think our student achievement is attributed to our entire community. We have great teachers, we have families and we have people who are supportive of public education,” Jones said.
“When we came out of the recession the City made a decision to restore funding to the school system at a level so that we can maintain, where in some localities around us that has not been the case. So I attribute high student achievement to the entire community.”
Falls Church City also has the highest middle and high school breakfast and lunch prices and the second highest elementary school breakfast and lunch prices in the region.
Falls Church City Public Schools stopped accepting federal reimbursements in recent years for its middle and high school meals, because they felt the students needed more food than they would have been required to offer according to federal regulations.
“We implemented them and it only took us a few months to realize that these federal requirements are not right for our children or school system,” Jones said. “So the board supported the effort to completely take our food service off the national school lunch program at the secondary level….80 percent of what we serve we make from scratch. We use fresh vegetables. We truly have a restaurant-style food service program and take a lot of pride in that. And the federal guidelines limited what we could offer our students. For example, if we have a 200 pound football player and we can only give him three chicken nuggets in October when he’s going to have practice after school, that doesn’t work.
“So we saw our food service program radically start declining because students couldn’t eat the lunch because they weren’t getting enough to eat, so we made a change and that’s reflected in the price. We had to make up the difference in order to serve healthier and what we thought was a better menu for our students.”