An exasperated Falls Church School Board and City school staff wrestled Tuesday night with the hard realities of cutting $912,600 from the budget it submitted in February based on the apparent resolve of at least four members of the City Council to impose a cut of that magnitude when the final vote on the Fiscal Year 2017 budget comes next Monday. Meeting at School Board headquarters to face up to the prospects of a draconian funding cut by the City Council below the numbers requested to cope with rising enrollment and pressures to remain competitive for teacher compensation with neighboring jurisdictions, the School Board mulled cuts proposed by Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and Chief Financial Officer Hunter Kimble that despite everything struggled to maintain the schools’ policy concerning small class sizes.
But the cuts would indirectly if not directly impact the classrooms and only ensure that the Schools will be in even greater need for additional funding next year. “I am sick over this,” commented Assistant School Superintendent Lisa High tonight, saying that the programs fundamental to the successful hiring, training and retention of quality teachers is being seriously compromised. Dr. Jones noted that the cuts will put the schools only further behind next year in the campaign to remain competitive for teacher salaries, with another large increase in their obligations to the Virginia Retirement Fund also coming on line next year.
Coming out of Monday’s City Council work session, there appear to be at least four (out of seven) Council members resolved to vote a budget this coming Monday that will have not real estate tax rate increase, keeping the current level of $1.315 per $100 of assessed valuation. To have given the Schools what they requested in February, according to City Manager Wyatt Shields, a 2.5 cent rate increase would be required.
Yet there has been no public discussion by the Council of alternatives that could keep the tax rate the same as last year and still fund the Schools at their requested level. Such alternatives include taking one percentage point off the current level at which the City maintains a highly-uncommon fund balance of 17 percent of annual operating budget expenditures. That would free up almost the exact amount needed to fund the Schools’ full request, but Council has apparently been told behind closed doors that the 17 percent fund balance, amounting to $14 million, needs to sit in the bank earning almost nothing because it will help appease Wall Street bonding agencies when the City needs to go borrow money in the future.
Still, the fund balance, or “rainy day fund” of neighboring Fairfax County is only five percent, and almost nowhere is it as high as Falls Church’s 17 percent. Nor does the City’s official fund balance policy require 17 percent. It calls for a range of between 12 and 17 percent, and in the 1990’s it was a range of 8-to-12 percent.
But without a willingness to crack that nut, the brainchild of a fiscally arch-conservative City staff leadership, the Schools had to examine tonight what cuts they could absorb if in fact the Council votes Monday burden them with $912,600 in program cuts.
They included the removal of a full-time computer science teacher position at the high school, of a full-time administrator position, a half-time gifted and talented teacher, topping out bonuses for teachers who’ve already hit the stop of the salary ladder, library and school book acquisitions, the elimination of the Schools’ Distinguished Scholar program, elimination of instructional supply funds and pre-K contracted music programs, among others. Still short $279,100 of required cuts, Dr. Jones presented the School Board with options for closing the gap on the remainder that included the reduction of teacher salary improvements, the removal of two full time elementary teachers, the elimination to zero of the School budget’s contingency reserves and the removal of a half time system-wide paraprofessional, which along with other hoped-for hires could help cope with the ongoing pressures of robust net enrollment growth.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report said that a full-time administrative assistant position was being removed. A full-time administrator position is being removed.