Faced by a deadline and in a highly uncommon development, the Falls Church School Board cast a split vote, 4-3, to approve its annual budget request that will be passed onto the F.C. City Manager and City Council.
The vote sent a budget request calling for a 3.7-percent increase in the City’s transfer to the schools for the coming school year. That request was higher than the 2.7 percent “guidance” that the Council issued to the School Board in December, but was justified by the majority on the School Board by the 6.3-percent enrollment growth in the school system this year.
The adopted budget request calls for a total school system budget of $50,708,200, with a transfer request from the City of $41,178,000.
The next step in the process of developing the City of Falls Church’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget, to go into effect on July 1, will be for City Manager Wyatt Shields to take the totality of the School Board budget request and build it into his recommended overall budget for the City which last year exceeded $88 million.
His recommended budget will be presented to the City Council in mid-March, and the Council will have until the end of April to determine the size of the budget, including whether or not a real estate tax rate increase will be required.
Earlier last month, the City government learned that real estate assessments grew by 3.6 percent overall, higher than in most other jurisdictions in the region, but still not enough to avoid placing major constraints on the size and scope of the City government and its schools.
Last year, the Council kept the tax rate even by cutting $912,000 from the School Board request, something everyone on the School Board this year said were loathe to see repeated. However, school enrollment growth this year has been almost twice the rate as last year, and projections for the coming year remain uncertain.
Funding problems for the schools include the just-learned fact that bids on the cost of construction of Mt. Daniel Elementary came in 21 percent higher than expected, and to cover that alone will cost the City more than $2 million above what was expected.
That is also over and above whatever number winds up being requested by an anticipated November bond referendum for construction of a new high school.
These facts contributed to the three “no” votes on the School Board request Tuesday night. Board member John Lawrence, who was joined by Justin Castillo and Margaret Ward in voting “no,” said that he feared with the $2 million more needed for Mt. Daniel, the City Council will not look kindly on the School Board’s asking for one percent above the 2.7 percent increase guidance it issued in December.
There was also concern that an inability of the School Board to decide whether, in adding one final position to its request, would want the position to be provided in the human resources department, or for a new ESOL and Gifted-Talented Program instructor.
The majority who voted for the budget — Chair Lawrence Webb, Vice Chair Phil Reitinger, Michael Ankuma and Erin Gill — argued they were requesting a funding number, and that details of the 94-page long line item budget could be hammered out at a later date. The Council does not have any control over the School Board’s budget line items.
Interim F.C. School Superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller told the News-Press that he was pleased by the “open, transparent process with a vibrant discussion” among the board members.
He was also happy that Shields and members of the Council attended a number of the School Board sessions, so they are aware of the issues.
“To be sure, there are a lot of unmet needs in this budget that the schools deal with on a daily basis,” Schiller said, but the product reflected “a willingness to collaborate with the City, as tight as the budget may be.”