This spring’s pre-enrollment for kindergarten in the Falls Church City Schools is a “very high” number of 146 so far, F.C. School Board Chair Justin Castillo reported to a town hall meeting on the F.C. budget Saturday morning, signalling another major enrollment hike for the system in the fall. Castillo and School Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones laid out the enrollment growth factors driving the Schools’ request for a 5.39 percent increase in the City’s transfer to the schools in the budget currently under deliberation at Saturday’s town hall, whose attendance was held down by a sudden snow flurry.
Enrollment in the Falls Church school system has grown from 1,871 in 2006 to a projected 2,600 next fall, and while the City’s population has grown by a robust 20 percent since 2005, the school enrollment has grown by a whopping 47.5 percent and the City now has 17 percent of its total population in the schools, which is the highest ratio in the region, and much higher than Arlington’s 10 percent. But with budget constraints since the Great Recession, the amount spent per student in Falls Church, when adjusted for inflation, at $12,000 per pupil is still below the $14,000 number of 2007.
Castillo and Jones also noted that the City receives the lowest amount of state funds allowed by the state’s Local Composite Index (LCI) formula, a mere 12 percent of its budget (and the federal contribution at 1.1 percent is lower still). They noted that if Falls Church had the same LCI number as Fairfax County it would be getting an additional $1.68 million and if it were the same as Loudoun County, it would get an additional $4.1 million. Still, the Schools’ request from the City leaves $1.5 million in unfunded needs in the system for the coming year.
Castillo and Jones also strongly defended the effectiveness of the system’s English as a Second Language and special education programs, saying they are generating “phenomenal literacy skills” and with great attention to individual student needs. Standards of Learning test results are not a good measure of the effectiveness of these programs, they said, because they are inappropriate for what students in these programs bring as their backgrounds.
The school transfer request is included in the $87.6 million budget proposal submitted by City Manager Wyatt Shields last month that is now being mulled by the City Council with an eye to adoption on April 25 with a 2.5 cent increase in the real estate tax rate from $1.31 to $1.34 per $100 of assessed valuation.Council members present at Saturdayy’s town hall included Mayor David Tarter, David Snyder, Letty Hardi and Karen Oliver.
Shields noted in his remarks that the City’s proposed tax rate is significantly below the total rate for nearby Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, which has a combined rate of $1.49. The City’s rate has been held down significantly by the impact of economic development in the City, he added, as 4.5 percent of the total assessed values in the City now come from six acres of new commercially developed properties. Therefore, for residences, he noted, the increase to $1.34 would amount to an increase of $167 a year for an average single family home.
Big pieces in the growth of the budget include a 25 percent increase in health insurance premiums for many of the City’s 199 employees and a 400 percent increase in the City’s annual obligation to the Washington Metro Area Transit System, due in part to declining revenues from gas sales as the price of gas has dropped. Snyder noted that the burden of localities to absorb more of the costs of regional transportation is aggravated by legislative actions in Richmond, including a refusal to place a floor on the gas tax revenues. He said a 62 percent decline in capital funding for transportation is in the works.
Monday night the City Council will hold a public hearing on the budget and will take under consideration beginning to fund a long-overdue renovation of the City Hall by authorizing the hiring of a master architect. City Hall is woefully inadequate to provide safe court services, as well as general services, he noted. If it moves ahead, construction of the needed security and public service upgrades would begin in the fall of 2018.