By Justin Castillo
This Monday, April 25, the City Council will vote on the budget for both general government and the schools. The current plan is to cut the School Board’s budget request by $912,000. Such an action would have serious consequences about how we as a community educate our children. As a result, it is important to understand how the School Board developed our budget request.
At last Monday’s City Council work session, the Council directed the City Manager to develop a budget that would cut the School Board’s budget request by $912,000 but reduce general government expenditures by a fraction of that amount. They came to this reduced amount by allocating a three-percent increase across the board, with little apparent concern for the needs within our small school division.
The School Board has three functions: develop strategy, provide resources, and hire a superintendent to use those resources to make the Board’s goals a reality. The request before Council is the School Board’s budget. We worked together over two months at multiple work sessions and public meetings, asked tough questions and made hard decisions. We unanimously concluded that, to educate our children at the level expected by our community consistent with state and federal mandates, FCCPS required an increase in the transfer of $2,065,130 over last year’s budget request.
The proposed FCCPS budget increases break down into several broad categories:
1) Compensation (about two-thirds of which is devoted to closing the teacher pay gap): $923,200. This translates into an average increase of two percent compensation (but not all staff are getting increases – as those whose salary level is comparable to Arlington are remaining flat). As we enter the third year of our four-year program to bring the average gap for FCCPS teacher salaries to 4.9 percent, which is just within our target of 3-5 percent.
2) The current budget resulted in a net loss of five full-time equivalent employees (FTEs). That helped balance the books last year, but enrollment growth means that we have to hire three new elementary FTEs and part-time paraprofessionals for $323,500 to meet projected demand. If the unusually high kindergarten pre-enrollment figures are any indication, this number could rise further.
3) Special education mandates: we need to hire four additional FTEs at a cost of $409,600 for safety and compliance reasons, while tuition for Special Education students who attend schools outside of FCCPS is increasing by $245,000.
4) Other mandated cost increases include health insurance ($509,400, approximately $324,000 of which emerged at the 11th hour), rent ($12,800), telephone ($31,000), Arlington Career Center tuition ($79,800); Thomas Jefferson High School tuition ($14,600).
After subtracting savings from employee turnover and benefit rates ($249,400) and a reduction in the contingency ($23,400), the total increase is $2,276,100, some of which is funded by other sources (such as increased state funding), resulting in a net requested transfer is $2,065,130.
At our work session last Tuesday the Board determined that the proposed cut would almost certainly increase average class size and hurt staff pay. That’s because education is a people-driven enterprise: approximately 85 percent of the FCCPS costs are personnel-driven (salary, benefits and wages), while the remaining 15 percent (such as classroom supplies, utilities, and insurance) is largely non-discretionary.
Why is the Council considering such deep cuts in the schools? Some say that the elephant in the room is Mt. Daniel. Unfortunately, we cannot solve Mt. Daniel (a capital project) before we resolve the operating budget. Mt. Daniel has been a difficult and costly experience, and I am sorry that the School Board and FCCPS leadership have failed to bring this plan to fruition. We are, however, moving forward with Fairfax County and just filed a revised submission with the Planning Commission on April 19.
These are difficult times throughout the region. Long-standing economic development paradigms are obsolescent, and commercial development is lagging. Yet the City is growing, adding residences and business, and the school-age population is growing even faster.
Some are concerned about future capital and claim that restricting operating expenses by keeping the tax rate flat is one way to plan for the future. I believe that a better way to prepare for the future is to fund present needs while carefully preparing for the future in a way that helps to fund operating and capital needs in a responsible manner.
Several members of the City Council seem to believe that citizens prefer a flat real estate tax over fully funding the proposed budget (which would increase real estate taxes by approximately $300 per household annually), and they believe that cutting the School Board’s request by over $900,000 is the way to achieve that goal.
Budgets reflect priorities and what citizens are willing to pay for. Your opinions matter, so tell the City Council what you think before Monday.
Justin Castillo is chair of the Falls Church City School Board.