By Peter Noonan
In the second “winter of our discontent,” the Falls Church City Public Schools has great news to share. This year’s budget looks really good. For those of you who were in The Little City two years ago, you will remember I proposed “the best budget I’ve had a chance to build” since my arrival in the Spring of 2017. The budget had a STEP increase for all eligible employees, a solid cost of living adjustment (COLA), and program growth that would allow us to continue building the outstanding school system our community has come to expect. I am not sure if it was the black cat that crossed my path, the ladder I walked under, or some other superstition I was jinxed by, but…a mere two months later, Covid arrived, and the local, state, and the national economy imploded. The result was millions of dollars of reductions to the Superintendent’s Proposed budget and ultimately operating with less revenue than we had the prior school year.
Today is a new day! There’s pent-up demand for goods and services. Our community continues to commit to shopping locally. And the real estate market has continued to grow. This past winter and spring, it went “a little crazy.” I know because I, too, bought a house in the city. This growth has put the Schools on a path to recover from two years of budgets that haven’t fully met our needs. Further, for the fourth year in a row, the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget falls within the guidance that the City Council deliberated and defined in meetings in December and January.
For background, four years ago, the City Manager and I looked for a way to establish a working budget relationship allowing for a more predictable process — one where the Schools and the General Government would share revenue from the City’s organic growth. Both the City Manager and I have seen the adverse effects of going through budget cycles where there isn’t revenue agreement that “pits” the General Government against the Schools and ultimately creates consternation among our residents. We came to the table to work through the issues and, in the end, developed a “handshake” revenue-sharing agreement by which the schools and general government will share the local organic growth. Again, this is the fourth year in a row my proposed budget meets the spirit of this agreement; the fourth year in a row, there is little news to make because of conflict in the budgeting process. That history, I hope, is in the past.
Ok…so…with fingers and toes crossed that I’m not jinxing it, this year’s budget is the best budget I’ve had the opportunity to build. In January, to our newly minted school board, I proposed a budget that includes a STEP increase for all eligible employees, a 2 percent increase in the COLA, and a “restorative STEP increase” for staff who would have received a STEP increase when the economy tanked. Also included are many supports for our teachers to ensure excellent working conditions because teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Plus funding to keep up with inflation.
In the past two years, the positionality of schools has never before been so apparent in a community. The symbiotic relationship between school, work, economic drivers, mental health, etc., has come to the fore. We have a chance to celebrate and recognize the incredible work of those who have gone “all in” for our students in Falls Church City. I am excited for the opportunity to support our outstanding and hard-working staff for their incredible service throughout the pandemic (Ugh…I wasn’t going to say that word in this commentary). Further, this budget presents opportunities to support our students who have struggled academically and emotionally through additional interventionists that are experts. This budget allows us to “see the forest through the trees” and provides an opportunity to build our Secondary Campus program with a vision of becoming a recognized Governor’s School in the coming years. Again, these are all crucial steps to providing the educational quality and excellence we all expect.
I want to thank our City Manager, our City Council, our School Board, and the FCCPS staff for finding such positive ways to work in concert together and create a circumstance where we all get what we need at the time that we need it. The community’s investment in shopping and living locally, along with the agreements between the schools and the general government, have made this possible.
Let’s emerge from the fog with a renewed enthusiasm for what can be. We must remain visionary and make decisions that move our work forward as a community. Just think; four years ago, we were executing on a vision of a new high school that now shines on the western bluff as a beacon of possibility.