As indicated by both lead stories of the front page of this week’s issue, the coming fiscal year budget process for the City of Falls Church got off to a mighty bang this week, the bang being the sound of City Council and School Board heads colliding.
Two meetings held simultaneously Tuesday night were like night and day. There could not have been a sharper contrast between the School Board and its initial assessment of its needs for the coming year and the City Council, pushing ahead with the expectation that a no tax hike budget could be achieved if the School Board asks for less than half the amount of increase it is contemplating.
The Schools, of course, are having to cope with record levels of enrollment growth, a trend which has no end in sight. The system is now larger, in terms of enrollment, than it has ever been. Managing this explosive growth has presented Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones and the School Board with massive challenges.
As School Board member Greg Rasnake quipped at a joint School Board and City Council work session last week, the enrollment growth could be stemmed by suddenly degrading the now outstanding quality of education in Falls Church, but if it is assumed this is not the desired course, then the only option is to face up to the needs and costs of the enrollment growth.
For starters, the strongest move by the School Board has been the guidance it provided to Dr. Jones to fashion a recommended budget not with consideration for the kinds of fiscal constraints the City Council may present, but solely with the needs of the students in the system in mind. School Board chair Susan Kearney made that clear on Tuesday night.
So, Dr. Jones’ budget came forward as a combination of mandated (by state and federal laws) and “critical” needs. Its bottom line was a robust 14.5 percent increase in the board’s request for a fund transfer from the City Council.
On the other side of town, City Manager Wyatt Shields was telling the Council that a zero-tax rate hike budget could be crafted if the growth of the School Board’s request could be held to six percent.
There is a big difference between 14.8 percent and the six percent. The size of the differential, 8.8 percent, equals almost that same amount in terms of pennies on the current $1.27 real estate tax rate.
While both sides seem “loaded for bear” this time, the School Board is demonstrating a lot more unanimity than the Council, which is often split, 4-3, on important votes.
Going into the process, citizens should be mindful that the superior reputation of the City’s schools constitute a significant “value added” for real estate here, such that the increased cost of funding the schools needs to be measured against the increased value to real estate that those costs create.