It could be called the first significant fallout from the results of last May’s election in the City of Falls Church. The F.C. City Council in its post-July 1 configuration is now sharply, and apparently solidly, divided over whether or not the City’s schools will be able to invest $500,000 of a $3 million budget surplus from the past fiscal year for technology upgrades for their students.
The vote on that matter comes this Monday night at City Hall. A preliminary vote with two members absent last month denied the School Board’s request, 3-2. While none of those five votes seems to have changed in the meantime, the two members absent in July will be there this Monday. One, Ron Peppe, is firmly on the side of the schools and that leaves Vice Mayor David Snyder, who has yet to definitively tip his hand.
Needless to say, a lot of attention will be paid to Monday’s meeting. In the course of the past week, little give was exhibited on the Council in two work sessions – one the “Gang of Eight” meeting that brought leaders from both the Council and School Board together Friday morning and the second a work session that took up the subject Monday night.
A third meeting, a School Board work session Monday morning, revealed that all its members and Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones remain in unanimous solidarity over the urgent need for the upgrades. They revolved not to give in on their request, and not to agree to savage some other part of their existing budget, such as the carryover component from last year, to get what their students need.
In the meantime, Dr. Jones posted on the Schools’ website an extensive Q-and-A spelling out the technology needs in detail. She alerted all Council members to it prior to Monday night’s work session.
It spells out that the $500,000 would be used to purchase 700 laptops, 500 iPads, all software, warranty and charging carts, having a “positive impact on all four of our school sites.”
It called the $500,000 a “down payment” to begin moving the school system “in the right direction to have more mobile technology access for our children,” adding, “While the schools had stated during the budget process that the needs are greater than $1 million, the $500,000 was believed to be a collaborative middle ground for City and schools.”
Documenting how the Falls Church schools are currently behind in technology, being maintained at a “status quo” to help in tough fiscal times, “There is a point at which a division gets so far behind that to catch up becomes almost impossible.” The fact that George Mason High is the only high school in northern Virginia currently without wireless Internet access will be corrected for the start of this school year next month, and that will provide the precondition for utilization of new capabilities.
Almost all the computers currently located at the schools are for use for “basic adult functionality, with only 125 computers for instruction among 850 students, and similar needs exist at Mt. Daniel, Thomas Jefferson and Henderson schools as well. At Mason High, there are only 30 laptops for student use.
In a memo to Mayor Nader Baroukh and the City Council issued Monday, School Board chair Susan Kearney wrote, “We feel strongly that the School Board understands best the needs of our schools.”
She said her board supports the idea of returning a portion of the $3 million surplus from FY 12 to taxpayers, but keeping enough for both the City and School operating needs, as well.
She questioned the Council position allocating the surplus only for Capital Improvement (CIP) needs, when that same position also calls for the City to be able to utilize $768,000 for non-CIP operating purposes. She wrote to the Council, “We are not questioning your authority to fund these items, just the difference between what you are doing and what you are asking us to do.”
Council members Phil Duncan and David Tarter, both sworn in last month after winning seats on the Council in the May election, are on record in favor of an approach that would divide the surplus evenly between the City and the schools at $500,000 each, allowing the schools to spend the money as they see fit, and return the remainder to the taxpayers.
Peppe, a former chair of the School Board, seemed to agree with the approach, although he didn’t have an opportunity to weigh in on that suggestion, per se.
Snyder, absent for the meetings last week, hinted at Monday night’s work session that he “wants to help the schools,” but made no explicit commitment.
The motion this Monday night will be to give “second and final reading” approval to the plan introduced by Councilman Ira Kaylin last month to deny the schools’ request and sequester all the surplus funds to a CIP-only use.