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.