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F.C. School Board Bucks Push for Premature Budget Limits

schoolboardphotoGOODAt a highly-anticipated joint Falls Church City Council and School Board joint meeting Monday night, a push by some on the Council to compel School Board members to formally commit in advance to financial parameters of their budget request for the next fiscal year was repelled forcefully by the School Board, led by its chair Joan Wodiska.

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DR. LOIS BERLIN (center), Superintendent of the Falls Church City Public Schools, laid out the pressures on the schools’ budget to a joint F.C. City Council and School Board meeting Monday night. Earlier that day, Berlin announced her retirement at the end of this school year (see story, Page 9). Left to right: Schools’ Financial Director Hunter Kimble, Berlin and School Board member Susan Kearney. (Photo: News-Press)

At a highly-anticipated joint Falls Church City Council and School Board joint meeting Monday night, a push by some on the Council to compel School Board members to formally commit in advance to financial parameters of their budget request for the next fiscal year was repelled forcefully by the School Board, led by its chair Joan Wodiska.

Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh went into the meeting saying he hoped that the two bodies could arrive at a consensus on FY12 budget “guidance” for an official resolution that would be voted on by the Council as early as this coming Monday.

But by the time the three-and-a-half hour meeting ended, there was agreement on almost nothing, except that the City should restore its fund balance on lines recommended by City Manager Wyatt Shields and that businesses should not be hit with new meals or other taxes.

Wednesday, Shields made a special appeal to the News-Press to publish a “guest commentary” on the City’s budget parameters going forward.

In it, while Shields confirmed that efforts at early budget “guidance” will be “more formal” this year than when early discussions have been held in the past, any resolution at this stage “does not preclude the Council from arriving at different conclusions at the end of the process.”

Citing the alternative budget scenarios he presented to the Council Monday, all involving steep deficits for the City budget due to the continuing economic malaise, he said, “I think it is important and useful to get early guidance from the Council on budget strategy, goals and objectives…The goal is to work through these scenarios, and their implications on spending cuts, early in the process. Spending cuts should be made with an eye toward long term strategy and sustainability.”
But while Shields stated he expects the guidance to come from the City Council, at this Monday’s joint work session, Baroukh and Council member Ira Kaylin, in particular, pressured the School Board to, essentially, sign onto the parameters of a formal resolution that the Council would subsequently ratify with an official vote.

This has never happened before, and Wodiska and others on the School Board, including Greg Rasnake, Rosaura Aguerrebere, Kieran Sharpe and Patrick Riccards, forcefully resisted the pressure from Baroukh and Kaylin to agree to a compact that would behead the school budget in advance from any deliberative consideration of the schools’ actual needs.

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FALLS CHURCH Mayor Nader Baroukh and Council member Ira Kaylin (left and second to left) were at odds with the School Board’s Patrick Riccards and Chair Joan Wodiska (second to right and right) at Monday’s joint work session on early budget guidance. (Photo: News-Press)

“This approach represents a fundamental shift in how we do business in Falls Church,” Wodiska charged, saying that past cooperation between the Council and School Board has been predicated on their distinct roles. “Our job is to tell you what we need,” she said. Citing projected continued growth in enrollment in the Falls Church School System, challenged the Council to consider some form of per pupil funding index.

Rasnake chimed in, “In the name of collaboration, what’s being proposed is a fusion of roles. Honestly, decisions about revenue sources is your role,” he told the Council. “You need us to inform you of what we need.”

Riccards said that the parameters for a proposed budget “guidance” resolution “are being presented to us as a fait accompli, with for us less than 24 hours to review.” Sharpe said that it is not appropriate “to leap to the envelope at this stage when we (the School Board–ed.) haven’t completed our assessment.”

Augerrebere said, “We’ve always asked for what we need, nothing more. In this there is no procedure to come back saying we need more.” Riccards noted that the School Board through its own budget deliberations offered a nearly six percent cut in its budget to the Council last spring.

But Kaylin fired back, “Yes, this is a whole new way of doing it, that’s the whole point. This is a new world and a new approach to it.” He said that economic realities are a “constraint to us all.”

Wodiska replied, saying “there is no consensus on the Council, even, that this process is correct.”

While Shields laid out the difficult fiscal landscape confronting the City in the coming year, the City schools’ pressures were also spelled out at the meeting, especially in light of rising enrollment and fixed state and federal mandates.

Citing an “Historic City Transfers to School Operations” spread sheet, Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin and Schools Finance Director Hunter Kimble showed that the resources allocated on a per pupil basis in the Falls Church Schools has declined in constant dollars terms for four consecutive years, including by nine percent in the current year.

The final result of Monday’s meeting was that elements of “guidance” related to real estate tax alternatives and the percentage breakdown of what should be allocated to the schools versus the City government were left off the table entirely, at least in terms of any joint “consensus.”

Council member Robin Gardner argued for delaying any formal resolution until more of these matters are resolved, and the Council will revisit the issue on its own at its Nov. 15 work session.

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