By Lawrence Webb
I would first like to thank the Falls Church City Public Schools staff, administration, and my school board colleagues for all the work put into the recently adopted School Board budget request for the 2018-2019 school year. It indeed was an open and transparent budget building exercise. The community asked many thoughtful questions during our numerous budget meetings and forums held since last fall. Answers were reviewed during work sessions and immediately posted publicly on our website. We related each suggestion and idea received against our 2018-2020 Triennial Plan. The result is a budget, which genuinely reflects the collective needs of the Falls Church school system balanced with the necessity for fiscal restraint within the current CIP environment.
Our budget request, now before City Council, includes a 2.8-percent increase in local funding for FY2019. It is the lowest such appeal in the last five years and does not require an additional local tax rate increase. On Dec. 11, 2017, we took to heart when City Council approved guidance of 2-percent growth “as a starting point.” Unfortunately, with reduced funding from the Virginia state government this year, revenue slightly beyond the 2 percent guidance from the City is essential to continue offering the high-quality education Falls Church citizens expect from their schools.
Each budget-building season begins with zero dollars. We then add mandated programs and scrub all of the last year’s programs, curriculum and departmental services looking for areas of efficiencies. This year’s deep dive has allowed us to add additional support for Special Education, repurposing of staff to support LEIP (formerly ESOL) students, and add other support for the Primary Years Programme at both Mount Daniel and Thomas Jefferson. These additions, along with our current curriculum resources teacher create a “Support Triad” focused on instruction for all students and professional learning for all teachers and all without the need for additional funding.
Our 2.8-percent increase request addresses two significant challenges we face this year. We need an additional psychologist to service our students’ emotional and social needs, and we must remain competitive in attracting and retaining excellent staff in the midst of a national teaching shortage.
Even before the terrible events we’ve witnessed in some of the nation’s schools this year, the School Board recognized an imbalance in the ratio of FCCPS psychologists to students – currently 1,400:1. We must and will do better. Our budget request includes funding for one additional psychologist to halve the caseload.
Also, we are seeking a 3-percent Cost of Living Increase (COLA) for all school staff. As a school system, our number one resource is our people. Our team is vital to the health of the system, and as such, a fair and competitive wage is necessary. A COLA benefits every FCCPS employee as compared to a step increase, which excludes some employees especially those who have given the most significant years of service.
We admit while the addition will improve our teacher pay, on average our teacher’s salary scales will remain slightly below those of Arlington Public Schools. The board is proud of the work it has accomplished over the last four years in making our salary scales competitive. The requested increase will help to ensure we don’t fall further behind. Because of the improved economy, the surrounding school systems are all proposing salary increases averaging 4.7 percent for their employees. Fairfax County is undertaking a plan similar to what we did to recalibrate teacher scales as it is facing increased challenges of retaining their teaching staff.
If the schools were to receive only a transfer increase of 2 percent, coupled with the reduction in state funding announced for this year, we would face a $350,236 gap and decisions on what to cut in some of the highest Triennial Plan priority areas. These could include removing the Psychologist and Special Education Specialist positions, or increasing class sizes with the elimination of approximately four teaching jobs. Alternatively, we could reduce the requested COLA to 2.3 percent, significantly less than the 4.7 percent average proposed in other school systems, and likely less than the City Manager’s 3 percent proposed increase for general government employees.
The School Board fully recognizes the fiscal environment we are in, and we commend the superintendent and the budget team for a hard scrub of the current budget to find nearly $700K in efficiencies inside of our current funding. Also, we’ve deferred other needs until next budget cycle including an additional social worker to help further our impact on students’ social and emotional well-being. In conclusion, we believe this budget ensures we meet the critical needs of our students, staff, and represents real fiscal restraint.
I look forward to continuing the dialogue with members of the city council and our citizens as deliberations continue over the next few weeks.
Lawrence Webb is the chair of the Falls Church City School Board.