It came to light late in the combined Falls Church City Council and School Board budget work session Monday night that City Manager Wyatt Shields and School Superintendent Peter Noonan met in December and agreed that each would offer a 3 percent cost-of-living salary increase for all the employees under their watch.
The agreement, which is seen as a solid move to enhance concord in the City, in and of itself accounts for the discrepancy in the proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budgets for the City operational and School Board functions, a matter the Council will provide a preliminary vote on at its meeting this Monday night.
Both Noonan and Shields confirmed the fact to the News-Press yesterday. Shields said, “We both expressed that it was important and a priority for us” to provide the increase, noting “it was in the context that we knew most peer jurisdictions in our region were planning to provide between 3 and 5 percent salary increases.”
It was noted at last Monday’s work session that because the Schools employ more than twice the number of employees — teachers and all others — than the City, the cost of a three-cent salary increase would be $1.050 million for the Schools compared to $480,000 for the City.
The differential between the two more than accounts for the fact the School budget request has been for a 2.8 percent increase in the current budget. While that increase is the smallest in many years, it was still above the 2 percent “guidance” that the City Council instructed the School Board adhere to in December.
The differential between the 2 percent “guidance” and 2.8 percent request has developed into the biggest bone of contention as the Council and Schools wrestle with the FY19 budget that is scheduled to culminate in a Council vote on April 23.
The differential is $353,182, while the differential between the City and Schools of the 3 percent salary increase is close to $600,000.
“In a budget of $91 million, it is exasperating that the fight comes down to a mere $350,000,” one prominent local citizen quipped this week. “Can’t we figure out a way to get beyond that without it becoming such a sticking point?”
But for some on the Council, it has become a cause celebre in itself, led by Councilman Phil Duncan, but with at least two others – Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous — expressing sympathy with his view. Duncan argued that the 2 percent number was “very carefully determined,” but others disagreed. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly reminded her colleagues that the December meeting to set the 2 percent “guidance” for the schools, the discussion was much more in flux, some insisting 2 percent was a “starting point” for deliberations, even though the final vote of 5-2 was in favor of locking in the 2 percent.
The School Board, including Chair Lawrence Webb and Vice Chair Phil Reitinger, argued at Monday’s work session that the School Board “is very mindful and responsive to the need to limit its budget this year,” due to the added burden on taxpayers of having to begin paying for the debt on the construction of a new high school and major improvements at City Hall and the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.
So, beyond the 3 percent salary increase, the only basis for growth in the School Board budget is a request for a psychologist serving the entire system.
The Board has prided itself on finding savings within its existing programs to make improvements. But included in a handout at the work session Monday was a list of unfunded budget requests that came from school principals, teachers and others in the system.
The unfunded requests totaled 11.4 full time equivalent positions at a cost of $1,370,354 including International Baccalaureate coordinator positions at Mt. Daniel and Thomas Jefferson Elementary, a special education administrator, a Mt. Daniel STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program teacher, a Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School classroom teacher, deans of students at Henderson and George Mason High School as well as a counselor, social worker, assistant athletic director at Mason, an accountant position and computer technician in the Central Office and the replacement of two outdated buses.
Overall, even with a 2.8 percent increase for the Schools, with the City operations coming in at a 1.7 percent increase, the impact of the two combined would warrant a 3 cent (per $100 of assessed valuation) decrease in the real estate tax rate for FY19.
But this is offset by a 6 cent increase for the new high school (4 cents), and City Hall and library improvements (2 cents).
The other factor built into the City Manager’s proposed budget is an as-yet undetermined increase in the City’s obligation to WMATA, because of the huge financial demands of the Metrorail system. So far, the “worst case scenario” for the City would require an increase of $1.1 million, or 2.5 cents on the tax rate.
All three of these factors – the City/Schools operational costs, the debt service on the three major capital improvement projects and the WMATA hit — will require a 5.5 cent increase in the real estate tax rate, notwithstanding the ongoing negotiations on the WMATA funding issue could lower that component significantly (probably not to be decided before mid-April).
So, it is likely that the “first reading” of the overall FY19 budget that the Council will consider at its business meeting this Monday will be for a 5.5 percent real estate tax rate hike, though some on the Council may push to lop off a penny’s worth from the Schools’ component.