On March 5, after almost two months of presentations, discussion, hearings, analysis, and deliberation, the Falls Church City School Board adopted an operating budget for the 2013/14 school year (FY14) of $40,937,800, an 8.6% increase over the current year. Of this, the School Board is requesting a transfer from the City (your tax dollars at work) of $33,682,700, a 14.6% increase over the current year. These are big numbers.
Why do we need this increase? Since 2007 student enrollment has grown by 500 students, or 20%, while local funding has increased by only 10%; and local funding accounts for more than 80% of our budget. Over the same time period, given the rough economy and the city’s financial condition, we have cut staff, converted jobs to part-time and part-year, reorganized and consolidated positions, instituted user fees, and postponed maintenance and equipment purchases. We have added only 6 classroom teachers for 500 kids. That’s a ratio of 83 students per teacher! To put things in perspective, we have added enough students to fill an entire new school the size of Thomas Jefferson, while tightening our belt and cutting our budget to the bone. We now have is a significant funding gap that we need to close. Even with the increase we are requesting this year, per pupil funding will be slightly less than what it was seven years ago in 2007.
What are the key priorities in this budget? First is hiring staff to reduce class sizes. Since 2007, class sizes have grown by 20-25%, from an average of 20-21 to 24-25 students, with some classes having as many as 26-30 students. This is too big. By way of comparison, our neighbors have class sizes of 20-22. Small class sizes are fundamental educating our students.
Second is increasing staff compensation. Our teachers are underpaid by thousands of dollars (in some cases more than $10,000) per year when compared with their colleagues in Arlington and Alexandria, our competitive set, and we ask more of them. The combination of class sizes being too big and salaries being too small makes hiring and retaining the kind of innovative teachers and staff we want here in Falls Church difficult. Research and our experience shows that excellent teachers are the difference between average and excellent results.
Third is money required to outfit the TJ addition and to move the 5th grade to Thomas Jefferson, the 8th grade to Mary Ellen Henderson, and our pre-K students to TJ while the pre-K center is completed.
Finally, we have expanded our readiness programs which make sure that every child in Falls Church is well fed and ready to learn.
How did this gap occur? Over the past four years the School Board has worked closely with City Council to budget responsibly during tough times. When our City had a revenue shortage, the schools returned funds to the general government to help out. For the past two years, the School Board has budgeted to City Council’s guidance so that rebuilding our reserves could be the top priority. Through a combination of fiscal discipline and economic recovery, our reserves are once again healthy. At the same time, our City’s revenues have recovered and are now 25% higher than they were in 2007. It’s time to refocus on adequately funding our schools.
How does spending in Falls Church compare with spending in neighboring jurisdictions? It can be hard to compare apples to apples since jurisdictions fund and account for their budgets in different ways, but according to 2012 statistics from the Washington Area Boards of Education, Arlington and Alexandria spend 8-10% more per student than the City of Falls Church, and we get superior results. Falls Church City Schools have the highest graduation rate (100% last year!), the highest percentage of students pursuing postsecondary education, the highest SAT scores, and the greatest percentage of National Merit Semi-finalists and finalists in Northern Virginia. In addition, our students routinely compete at the district, state, and national levels, and frequently are champions, in the Scholastic Bowl, robotics, Odyssey of the Mind, geography, math, spelling, and more. Our students also reach the highest levels of performance in the arts and athletics. We should be proud of our world class school system.
A better question to ask is does the current level of school funding compare favorably with how Falls Church has funded the schools in the past? Until a few years ago, the schools received on average 46% of the City’s general fund revenues. We now receive less than 41%, which translates to about a $3.5 million dollar gap.
If you’d like to learn more about the school division’s budget request, please visit our website at fccps.org, attend the budget town hall on April 13, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Kearney is the Chair of the Falls Church City School Board.