Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Rhetoric Over Strategy: Reconsidering the Referendum

By Johannah Barry

Although the recent weather presents a somewhat different picture, autumn is upon us. Two clear signs — the ubiquitous pumpkin spice flavoring in any comestible imaginable and growing political campaign rhetoric. I cannot tell you which is more unpalatable, but I can tell you that one is more dangerous than the other.

I applaud the important public service that our candidates for School Board and City Council are willing to undertake and value their commitment to our City. I do take exception to the language being used to describe what is possibly one of the most significant financial undertakings this City has contemplated — the November 7 bond referendum. At $120 million, this borrowing will have historic impact upon the City’s financial health for the next thirty years. It is our obligation to parse the campaign rhetoric carefully and understand what is being asked of us.

Some would argue it is a case of “dueling numbers” and dismiss any opposition to the referendum as a partisan issue. This is a dangerous misapprehension. Borrowing $120 million over a 30-year period requires debt service of $7.4 million during the term of the bonds or 15.5 cents on the tax dollar. A regrettable decision to “mute” the immediate effect of this borrowing on the debt service will put $10 million of the water sale money into the mix.

Why regrettable? Because once dedicated to School Division debt service (and let us remember that while the debt service shows on the City-side of the ledger, it is in fact a School Division debt) that money is gone. No opportunity for additional necessary infrastructure, teacher salary, pension obligations, etc.

The $120 million does not contemplate additional costs such as heating, air conditioning, equipment, books (yes, those…) teachers, pensions, etc. In classic “bricks over books,” the drive to create a landmark piece of architecture overshadows the actual need.

We do need a safe, comfortable, wholly adequate learning place for our students now and in the future with a structure that benefits from technology which aids learning and reduces running costs. Many iterations have been considered, but only one option has been put forward.

And that is the other aspect of dangerous rhetoric. The voters are being given a “take it or leave it” scenario. Actually, we aren’t even being given the “leave it” option. It is “take it,” or education as we know it for our high schoolers is forever compromised. This of course isn’t true, there are multiple opportunities for different outcomes from different scenarios. The wheel does not need to be re-invented. But fear is a useful political weapon and regrettably the real needs of our students are being buried under layers of opaque and fanciful economic projections.

Years ago, I sought counsel from Lou Olom, who needs no introduction for readers of the News-Press. Lou cautioned me that as a new Council member, if I ever felt confused about what decisions to make, to go back to basics. Ask myself if my vote was concordant with City values.

In doing so, I believe that to vote YES on this referendum is to vote at odds with the values that City leaders, staff and Council have vowed are central to their work. The City’s recent strategic plan says that “In 2025, Falls Church is an independent city that respects citizens and provides personal attention to meeting their needs. It is a unique place to live, work, and shop, offering diversity in housing, amenities, and services. Its historic charm reflects the stewardship of residents and their local government. It is built on a human scale, where visitors and residents alike can find everything they need while experiencing the fabric of life in a friendly, close-knit community. The City is financially sound, environmentally sustainable, and a leader in one of our nation’s most dynamic metropolitan areas.”

With a tax rate climbing at a rate that far exceeds our neighboring jurisdictions, what part of economic diversity does this vote embrace?

With more and more development sought, where are those green places we talk about? What part of a small town remains with a single-minded effort to create more density? Where are those walkable streets? What is the future of our historic charm? And in borrowing $120 million and “cashing in” the water fund revenue, how can we possibly talk convincingly about financial sustainability?

Going back to basics does not mean going backwards. It means getting clear on intent, on process, on goals and on a sustainable way forward.


Johannah Barry is a former City Council member and former co-chair of the Budget and Finance Committee