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F.C. School Board Rejects Mayor’s ‘Trust Me’ Plan for Tech Upgrades

The Falls Church School Board overwhelmingly rejected a draft proposal from F.C. Mayor Nader Baroukh that he brought to tonight’s School Board work session wherein the Schools front the money for a $500,000 technology upgrade on the promise that the City Council will “hold harmless” money for reimbursement in next spring’s budget. The six School Board members present (Greg Rasnake absent) concurred with Board Chair Susan Kearney who concluded at the end of a vigorous 90 minute discussion, that included numerous back-and-forths with the mayor, that the Mayor’s proposal “is off the table.”

img 5321F.C. School Board member Joan Wodiska (left) lashed out at Mayor Nader Baroukh repeatedly at tonight’s School Board work session. Her colleague Kieran Sharpe is on the right. (Photo: News-Press)

The Falls Church School Board overwhelmingly rejected a draft proposal from F.C. Mayor Nader Baroukh that he brought to tonight’s School Board work session wherein the Schools front the money for a $500,000 technology upgrade on the promise that the City Council will “hold harmless” money for reimbursement in next spring’s budget. The six School Board members present (Greg Rasnake absent) concurred with Board Chair Susan Kearney who concluded at the end of a vigorous 90 minute discussion, that included numerous back-and-forths with the mayor, that the Mayor’s proposal “is off the table.”

“We want a resolution, but we don’t believe this is it,” Kearney said. The board reiterated its previous position that favored using the City’s $3.6 million surplus from the fiscal year ending last June 30 in a three-way split between the City, the Schools and the taxpayers (in the form of a rebate). It was a work session, so no formal votes were taken.

The mayor’s proposal was an effort to hold to the wishes of three of six members of the Council to deploy the surplus only to the City’s legal fund and capital improvement project reserves. With one Councilman absent, those three members were able to block any other use of the funds earlier this month, despite the pleadings of the School community that the $500,000 in technology upgrades — in the form of laptops and iPads for students at all levels of the system — was urgently needed.

The urgency was underscored tonight when Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones announced to the board that she’s signed an agreement with Apple Computers for the $500,000 package because Apple was standing firm with its deadline on the package deal. She said she was able to get Apple to wait until Sept. 30 to learn of the exact mode that the Schools will use to fund the deal — either by lease or purchase — but that until that element is signed, there will be no delivery of the package to the schools.

A stunning revelation came from the mayor himself, when he revealed that initial meetings in July on how the surplus would be expended came up, the agreement was for an equal apportionment between the City and the Schools for their capital improvement projects (CIP) needs, and that the technology upgrades were included in the schools’ CIP column. He said that it then came to light that some prevailing accounting standards would not accommodate technology upgrades under the category of CIP, and they were therefore removed.

School Board member Joan Wodiska verbally jumped on the mayor at that point. “Do you mean to say that when it (the technology upgrades) was called CIP, you were willing to fund it, but when it wasn’t called CIP you weren’t? Why were you willing to fund it before and why won’t you fund it now?” Mayor Baroukh said nothing in response.

But he argued at other points that he and Council members Ira Kaylin and Johanna Barry who voted with him against the School Board request felt that the schools should not be singled out for funds when other needs exist in the City, and that using one-time surplus money for operating expenses was not prudent. Councilman Phil Duncan, who voted for the Schools’ request, was present tonight but did not comment.

Wodiska lashed out at Baroukh at other points in the meeting, as well, noting that the surplus has been lumped into a City fund balance that is currently ballooned to over 22 percent of the annual operating costs. “We have one of the very best school systems in the nation,” she said, looking directly at the mayor. “We have the Number One graduation rate in Virginia. We are the pride and joy of the state and of our community. I ask you to honor this system. It is in your grasp to do this. You are the mayor of the best school system in the U.S. It blows my mind that we are in this situation now.”

Baroukh said his proposal will “get this done,” but Wodiska said if the School Board thought so, “We’d be cheering you, but we’re not.”

The Schools’ chief financial officer Hunter Kimball presented the room with a detail breakdown of how the Schools’ own fund balance operates and how it fluctuates year-to-year. He noted that if the technology upgrades were paid for out of the Schools’ fund balance, it would drop that balance down from $2.8 million on July 1, 2011 to $226,669 by next July 1. “The School Board has followed the City Charter to the letter,” he said, adding that those who suggest the School Board “has been somehow squirreling away money I find rather offensive.”

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