By Keith R. Thackrey
Recently, there seems to have been increasing discussion about moving the City of Falls Church back into Fairfax County in order to reduce taxes. People come to Falls Church from other areas of the country and see a small jurisdiction surrounded by much larger cities and counties. Thinking back to Economics 101, the phrase “dis-economies of scale” comes to mind, and the quick easy solution to high taxes jumps out: merge with a larger jurisdiction so they can absorb the overhead.
Before we rush to the quick, easy solution, however, I would like to bring a little historical perspective. My parents, Franklin and Jessie Thackrey, came to the Washington, D.C. area in 1941, and bought a house in the Town of Falls Church, then a part of Fairfax County. They moved from Lincoln, Nebraska with two small children, but they both grew up in Kansas. They expected schools to be better in the Washington, D.C. area than they had been in Kansas, but they were disappointed. At that time, their children would have attended Oak Street Elementary School (now Thomas Jefferson) or the Jefferson School on Cherry Street, Whittier Junior High School (then located where the current Falls Church High School is today), and Falls Church High School (located where Whittier Park is today).
My mother became president of the Oak Street School PTA, and found great frustration trying to deal with the Fairfax County School Superintendent. They often had to find materials, and perform maintenance on the aging building themselves, and at one point, when she asked for screens on the windows of the school, the superintendent denied the request stating that it was not mosquito season. They patched and repaired tiles and mortar, and painted, among other repairs. After enough years of frustration and unresponsive government, my parents joined with others in the area and in 1948 formed the independent City of Falls Church, with an independent school system.
Fairfax County and Falls Church have both changed dramatically since that time. Fairfax County schools have improved dramatically, but while the schools were the primary reason to form an independent city, they were symptomatic of a larger problem, small pun intended. Fairfax County was a huge county, even back then. Now the county is dealing with a population of well over a million people. It is virtually impossible for even the most dedicated public servants to provide personalized service. In Falls Church, the senior officials often know a large portion of their citizens by sight, and it is not uncommon to see those officials working behind the counter to handle personal issues. In addition, the tax rates in Falls Church have historically been very close to those of the surrounding jurisdictions, sometimes lower, and sometimes higher, but usually very close. The higher taxes are caused by higher property values, which are driven higher by the quality school system.
Falls Church citizens have debated the merits of lower taxes vs. quality schools over the years, and have always chosen quality schools. The result has been the best public school system in the state and one of the best in the country. It has the highest graduation rate, the highest rate of children going on to higher education, and has led the way for the Commonwealth of Virginia in many areas, including integration of schools, adding kindergarten, adding Day Care, and use of paraprofessionals. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program at George Mason is recognized as one of the best in the world. Recently, the Virginia Senate and House issued a joint resolution commended the Falls Church Public Schools for the successful “pioneer efforts” to introduce into the Virginia public school system, the IB program curriculum.
Fairfax County often has 30 to 40 children in a classroom. Falls Church is generally in the teens and twenties. As there is only one school at each level in Falls Church, all of the children track through the same schools on the way to graduation. Fairfax County would not be able to sustain this sort of individualized curriculum specific to the current City residents. Over time, the buildings would be replaced with larger facilities, housing many more students, with a much higher pupil to teacher ratio.
Fairfax County is a fine place to live. Falls Church certainly has some problems; traffic on the main streets being the most obvious. We have created a unique environment in Falls Church, however, with a small town atmosphere in a major metropolitan area, and a public school system that is second to none. I would never advise the citizens of Falls Church to avoid Fairfax County. I do ask that when looking at an important decision such as this, don’t just take the quick, easy solution. Consider the consequences carefully.