Guest Commentary: Paying More for Schools Isn’t a Burden, It’s What We’re About

April 11, 2013 9:29 AM4 comments

I have been involved in debates on public policy issues in the City for almost 20 years. In particular, I have devoted years of my life to school budget debates as a taxpayer, volunteer, member of City Council and now as part of the Falls Church Education Foundation. I understand that these debates go in periodic cycles (and have since the City’s founding as an independent city in 1948). The schools need money – and people complain about the schools needing money. City Council wants the schools to be great, but they struggle mightily with giving the schools the money that would actually allow them to be great.

However, what has also always been true is that, at the end of the day, the right answer has always been to invest more in schools. That strategy has consistently proven not only good for the kids and the community, but also critical to the continued independent existence of the City.

The City broke away from Fairfax County for the specific purpose of establishing its own extraordinary school system. At the time, Falls Church was a semi-urban community surrounded by large rural counties. Those counties, with economies based upon agriculture, followed a low tax/low service governance model that did not put a high priority on quality schools.

The citizens of Falls Church, many of whom were transplants from more urban areas, decided to tax themselves a lot more in order to build a school system that was much better than Fairfax was willing to provide at the time. They succeeded brilliantly. At the same time they bequeathed to future generations a great civic legacy: In the midst of governmental giants, this small community was given a unique capacity to decide things for itself. Our local taxes are spent by us, on us – and all within a 2.2 square mile area. There are entire countries that have less power for self-determination than the City of Falls Church currently possesses.

But having better schools than Arlington or Fairfax in the 1940s and ’50s was one thing. Today, those counties boast some of the best and most advanced schools in the country. At the same time, given the City’s low commercial tax base (which, I have come to believe, our citizens generally like and want – all protestations to the contrary), Falls Church is locked into a model of higher property tax rates than either of those counties.

So what should our aspiration now be for our schools? Should they be “as good” as Arlington or “almost as good”? (Our physical buildings are currently a lot worse, actually.) That would be a strategy for community death. People aren’t dumb. Paying more for the same or less is not sustainable and, if nothing else, eventually results in our property values being discounted to account for the additional useless tax burden.

Moreover, once you decide that our schools only need to be “as good” as surrounding jurisdictions, then the entire underlying rationale for the City’s independence erodes. The City exists because of its school system. If we are just the same as other school systems, then what’s the point? What are we paying more for? Long-term, the only rational outcome would be to pack it in and ask to be absorbed into a surrounding county. (Most likely, we would unincorporate and once again become a part of Fairfax County.) Then all decisions (including school and economic development decisions) would be made at the Fairfax Government Center by people who probably do not live in our community. We would squander the great independence that we had been given.

Alternatively, we could commit to ensure that our schools are truly “extraordinary” – with the best teachers (which also means best paid), best facilities and best curriculum and governance. It is a formula that has worked before and it drives a cohesive, vibrant community and higher property values. And higher taxes are acceptable and sustainable when people believe they are actually getting something extraordinary for their money. People are willing to pay more – a lot more – for something that is, in fact, a lot better. The City has proven that time and time again.

So its time for us to ask our elected representatives to make a choice. Are they willing to commit to do what needs to be done – including seriously raising property taxes, if necessary – to make our schools truly extraordinary? Or are they going to choose community decline and the loss of our precious power of self-determination? It really is pretty much just that simple.

 


David Chavern is president of the Falls Church Education Foundation.

  • vseidita

    I think that the vast majority of the residents of the city agree that top notch schools are among the best reasons to live in Falls Church. I personally could not be happier with the quality of the education that my children received here. However, this should not translate into giving the schools a blank check. For 30 years I have worked as a consultant to the best educational institutions in the world and the number one lesson I have learned is not to blindly assume that more money is the solution to all challenges. For example, in last year’s rush to spend excess money a tremendous number of new computing devices were added to a network that precludes the use of student owned devices. Not only was that wasteful, but we missed a low cost way to exploit our assets. Let us agree that great schools are the goal, but please allow us to vet the ideas of the administration in a way that leverages the intellectual assets of our community.

  • PaulFlusche

    I urge the City Council to ignore Chavern and the other school bullies and stand up for the taxpayers of Falls Church. Chavern took us back to 1948 when Falls Church became an independent city for “extraordinary” schools. In fact, the main point was to keep Falls Church’s schools segregated; the black students were sent to school in Fairfax County at the expense of Falls Church.

    Also in 1948, the top marginal tax rate was over 80 percent. Obama wants higher taxes, the state wants higher taxes, and Chavern and his ilk want higher taxes. Just say no!
    Today, the people of Falls Church are over taxed, we are constantly asked to do with less. Higher taxes for residents, a recent pay freeze for City employees, filthy streets and clogged storm drains because the City can’t afford street cleaning, but the schools are never asked to do with less.

    According to Chavern we exist to support the schools. We must not allow these school bullies to enslave us and claim that the schools are the only reason to have an independent City. Our City Council is approachable – they live in our neighborhoods – that alone is worthy of maintain our independent status.

    It is high time for the schools to ease the financial pain of taxpayers. This doesn’t mean doing with less; it only means doing without so much more.

  • Mark

    The comments on here are very good.
    Chavern’s piece shows what is wrong with the thinking in FCC by some sectors. FCC is more than a school district!
    The current ‘formula’ he describes of throwing more money at the schools is NOT sustainable. Eventually high taxes (glide path to $1.90 per $100) will hurt home prices. More important, throwing money at the schools does not lead to better students. The best predictors of student success: parents with college educations, books in the house, nurturing support environment, etc … not teachers alon.
    Contrary to what Chavern says … people are NOT ‘willing to pay more – a lot more …’.

    With Chavern’s vision … we will have no diversity in the City. It will be a town of rich folk who pay for a non-diverse school system (no economic diversity). Do we want this type of town?
    In addition to restraining school spending (we all need to live within our means) – we need much more commercial development. Commercial development requires leadership that will support and attract such development.

  • G R R@sn@ke

    Strong remarks from one of the City’s strongest leaders. Your credentials to speak on this matter are impeccable. Thank you David.

    -Greg Rasnake

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