Falls Church City Schools’ Superintendent Peter Noonan presented a preferred option for keeping next fiscal year’s school budget within the constraints of a two-percent growth at the School Board work session Tuesday night by eliminating four positions in the system.
Noonan assured the Board that the cutbacks would still keep the schools within the parameters of its guidelines for small class sizes.
The option was not presented as the superintendent’s official recommendation, because that will not come until he presents his formal budget proposal to the Board on Jan. 8. Instead, this was presented in a set of talking points over options presented for discussion by the Board.
It came in the form of three “tiers” of options for keeping the next school budget, which would go into effect on July 1, within the constraints of the “guidance” the City Council outlined last week. The council’s guidance was for budget growth to be kept within the projections for overall revenue growth — projected at two percent — so as not to burden real estate taxpayers with any increase in the tax rate. That tax rate is currently $1.355 per $100 of assessed property valuation.
Noonan confirmed what he first said last week, that a reasonable cost for running the school system will be significantly greater than the number permitted by the two-percent “guidance,” by an amount of $730,000 to be exact.
Two percent revenue growth translates into $1.7 million, and if that is split in half for the City’s operating budget and the schools’ then that leaves each with $850,000. The schools get an additional $85,000 in state funds (based on the current year’s allocation, but it may be somewhat higher, to be determined).
So, as Noonan showed, that total of $935,000 in new revenue gets offset by a salary “step” for school employees along with a one percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) at a cost of $1.5 million, an expected $300,000 increase in the cost of health insurance, an additional $50,000 to compensate substitute teachers and increases in material expense, or logistics, costs to create a gap between the guidance and reasonable new costs of $730,000, which would translate into almost two cents on the real estate tax rate.
It was noted that while projections anticipate 54 new students entering the system next fall, the flat growth of enrollment in the last year means that no new teachers need to be added to the system this year, keeping the pressure for added new revenues to a minimum.
So, minding the $730,000 gap between the two-percent guidance and providing for limited reasonable new needs could be addressed by what Noonan presented as three scenarios, or tiers, for reducing school costs. All three hypothetical tiers reduce logistical costs by $100,000, some reduce the increase in substitute teacher pay below a $1 per hour increase and the cost of the COLA by half or more, and “position realignments” from $180,000 to $292,000 to $405,000.
“Position realignments,” Noonan clarified to the News-Press after the meeting, involve realigning teacher assignments to keep all class sizes within the caps defined by school policy, but finding ways to do with less classroom staff, either teachers, paraprofessionals or assistants.
Noonan told the Board that of the three tiers presented, one was clearly “the best” option, a tier that calls for cutting the one-percent COLA in half, saving $200,000, and cutting four staff positions, saving $405,000, halving substitute pay increases, reducing logistical costs by $100,000 and other savings.
Any new money that may come to the system, such as the potential for more from the state in the context of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed new state budget unveiled this week, or less than expected health care premium cost increases, would go to building back the COLA number, he said.
At any rate, the three tiers, with a fourth option being no cuts below the reasonable cost increases and a fifth being a budget with even more cost increases, will all be the subject of School Board deliberations and public hearings over the next two months.
While Noonan will present the board with his formal budget recommendations on Jan. 8, the Board will have until Feb. 19 to vote on its version of its proposed budget that will then be forward to the City Manager.
Under state law, the City Manager Wyatt Shields will take that budget number and build the City’s overall annual operating budget around it with his formal budget recommendation to the City Council that he will present on March 11.
The final decisions will then be in the hands of the City Council which will adopt the Fiscal Year 2020 budget (July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020) on April 22.
If the Council’s budget alters the School Board request in any way, the School Board will then take that new number to adjust its budget on May 7.
This will all happen in the context of ongoing planning to commence with the construction of a new $120 million George Mason High School, work upon which is slated to commence the day the school year ends next June. It will be under construction for a year and a half adjacent the existing high school plant and will be paid for by leases issued for 10 acres on the site to developers for dense commercial development.