Guest Commentary: Support the Schools & Fund Our Future

April 18, 2013 11:09 AM8 comments

When I first wrote this column, it was filled with simple, easy-going facts about how the schools had been under-funded for years and how we were starting – just starting – to get back on track. Unfortunately after Tuesday night’s Council work session, I feel I need to be a bit more pointed.

Let’s start with the fact that in the Washington Post Challenge Index our George Mason High School once again ranked as highest in the traditional high school category in the Commonwealth and third among all such public high schools in the Metro area. Among all schools – public, private and magnet – Mason ranks second in Virginia.

First, everyone needs to understand that the request made by the School Board did not reflect the full school needs. The Superintendent identified all the needs and they totaled almost $5 million more than we requested from the City. So if you hear that the City is considering “fully” funding the schools, take that with a huge grain of salt. Some have called for “phasing in” the school budget because of anticipated increases. That’s exactly what we did by not asking for everything we actually need this year.

Second, yes, the schools have asked for a significant increase over last year’s budget. Why? In the past five years enrollment has gone up by 26 percent and City transfer per student (adjusted for inflation to be fair) has gone down by 19 percent. If, starting in 2007, the school division had received its historic 46 percent of revenues, we would have received almost $10 million more in that time period. So the schools have been defunded to the tune of $10 million over five years.

Third, where does the school division money go? Well, 85 percent is for people and that basically means teachers. Our administrative costs are down to 4 percent – versus 9 percent for the City.

Where do we stack up with other schools in the region? For teacher pay? We’re lower – sometimes much lower. Class size? We’re bigger (except for Fairfax at the high school level). Facilities? As David Chavern said last week, we’re much worse.

And yet for scores, graduation rates, athletics, etc., we’re at the top of the top. But we’ve been underfunding the schools and the question is when is too little too much?

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve read and studied while on the School Board is that if a child gets two years in a row of a seriously sub-standard teacher, they never catch up with their peers. What about funding? How many years of seriously underfunding the schools will result in a hole too big to dig out of? And one on the Council called this “fear mongering,” accusing the schools of a budget “based on fear.” We have been underfunded for the past five years to the tune of $10 million. Our current request is nearly $5 million below documented needs. Given the way the Council is leaning now, by the end of FY 2014, the schools would have been underfunded by $15 million over six years. That’s not fear – that’s math.

Some on Council seem to think that we can just continue to absorb this and accuse us of setting up a “false zero-sum game.” Apparently they think such massive underfunding shouldn’t cause problems with our schools. Using my Midwestern penchant for logic, I guess they would also say that if we were to pump in an extra $15 million over five years we should see no dramatic improvement in the schools. Take out $15 million? No difference. Put in $15 million? No difference. Seriously? I get a headache from that kind of thinking.

In fairness, Councilmen Baroukh and Peppe seemed to want to fund the school request and Councilman Snyder has also always been a strong school supporter.

But it looks as if the Council is looking to cut $350,000 (at least) from the schools. What can the school cut to meet this arbitrary number? Here are some possibilities.

• A Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade teacher, or

• The entire budget to set up new classrooms at TJ, Pre-K, 1st grade, and Kindergarten, or

• The entire Gifted Budget for MD, TJ, and MEH, including staff, or

• 26 percent of the Special Education budget for George Mason, or

• The entire custodial staff, or

• All of our electric, gas, water, sewer, custodial supplies and maintenance repair fund

And the list can go on. Art? Athletics?

Then what we’ll hear is “No, don’t cut that.” If the Council cuts the school request, something – several things, in fact – will have to give. Class size will increase without question. Come to the Council meeting on Monday, April 22 (7:30 in City Hall) and speak out for the schools.

Support the schools. Fund our future.


John Lawrence is a member of the Falls Church City School Board.




  • Work travel has kept me from these meetings over the last few weeks. I will be there tonight, I will be there on Monday. I moved to FCC for the schools. I struggle to find affordable housing to maintain our residence in this community because of the schools. When I sat in kindergarden orientation we were told about the great low numbers in a classroom – 19 on average. My daughter’s class size has averaged 25 and she is a part of the 25% increase in enrollment. If funding education in our community isn’t a priority what could possibly be more important?

  • FallsChurchCitizen

    How will the pending move of 5th grade to TJ, once the ongoing construction to expand the facility is complete, affect the issues at both TJ (which will grow to house grades 2-5 instead of 2-4) and GM (which is being reduced to grades 9-12 instead of the current 8-12)? Shouldn’t this alleviate some of the facility overcrowding issues at GM until a new facility can be built in the next 3-5 years? And I believe that plans are pretty much solidified to expand/update Mt. Daniel in 2014-15. Lastly, has there been any discussion of how the $10 million in net proceeds from the water sale will be divvied up once it’s approved by voters?

  • JohnDLawrence

    The move will help rebalance things, but just for a bit, given our growth. And the biggest growth is at the lower levels not the High School. I wish we could expect a new HS in the next 3-5 years, but the best we could hope for is getting one started in that time frame. Depending on what we do and where we place a new school, this could be a multi-year process easily and where the kids go if we have to build where the current school is is a huge issue. And no decisions have been made about any money related to the water suit.

  • FallsChurchCitizen

    Have we already committed the $200,000 for the fence around GM and MEH, announced in January 2013 as a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy in Connecticut, or can that be saved? (Where did that money come from, anyway?) Since we’re rebuilding the high school in a few years, why not wait and add whatever exterior/perimeter security is deemed appropriate as part of that upcoming construction?

  • Vincent Seidita

    Have their been any school killings where the killer walked to the school? If the $200,000 fence isn’t going to stop vehicles from entering the campus what will it prevent?

  • John — You started your column with the fact that in the Washington Post Challenge Index
    our George Mason High School once again ranked as highest in the
    traditional high school category in the Commonwealth and third among all
    such public high schools in the Metro area. Among all schools – public,
    private and magnet – Mason ranks second in Virginia.

    I’m originally a Bethesda guy, so maybe I didn’t go to very prestigious high school because I have no idea what this award is. Can you pls explain the significance of the Washington post challenge index — who did we whip, with what, how and why?

    Also, can you weld your school board clout and find out the minimum acceptable
    class size for the following courses (by that I mean, what is the
    number of students that if, at the beginning of a school year, have not
    signed up for the class, the class would be canceled)? and what is the
    current enrollment in these classes as of beginning of the third
    quarter. Just ask for an export into excel from Power school master
    scheduler and send me the file, I can figure it out from there.

    thanks in advance

    AP Calculus AB
    AP Calculus BC
    AP Spanish Language
    AP US Government and Politics
    AP Visual Arts Higher Level
    AP Visual Arts Standard Level
    IB Biology Higher Level
    IB Business and Management Standard Level
    IB Chemistry Higher Level
    IB Chemistry Standard Level
    IB Computer Science Higher Level
    IB Computer Science Standard Level
    IB Creativity
    IB English Language and Literature Standard Level
    IB English Literature
    IB English Literature Higher Level
    IB Environmental Systems
    IB Environmental Systems Higher Level
    IB Environmental Systems Standard Level
    IB Film Standard Level
    IB French B
    IB History Higher Level
    IB History Standard Level
    IB Literature Self Taught Standard Level
    IB Mandarin Chinese B
    IB Math Studies Standard Level
    IB Mathematics
    IB Mathematics Standard Level
    IB Mathematics Higher Level
    IB Music Higher Level
    IB Music Standard Level
    IB Physics Higher Level
    IB Physics Standard Level
    IB Psychology Higher Level
    IB Psychology Standard Level
    IB Social and Cultural Anthropology Standard Level
    IB Spanish B
    IB Theatre Arts Higher Level
    IB Theatre Arts Standard Level
    IB Theory of Knowledge

    I believe it is the laundry list of ib courses.

    • Hey John — I just read about the Washington Post Challenge Index, do you honestly think this has value? Frankly, its a farce but don’t take my word for it go here and about what it is measuring.

      A good summary of it says” In essence, the index inflates the rank of school districts where parents can afford to allow their children to “take a flier” on relatively expensive tests, even if they are not prepared. It doesn’t take into account how well students do in the APs. It cuts off schools who do too well on the SAT.”

      “It’s like ranking American Idol singers on how many songs they say they can sing, without listening to any of them. And then arbitrarily cutting off ones who are “too good.”

      Yikes — the bar is low!

      • Bill, I looked through (fairly quickly) your presentation and parts of it were interesting. There were some places where I thought you drew conclusions from data that were speculative but maybe worth looking into further.

        One major thing that I wish you had included information about is related to teacher pay. You clearly suggest that special education and ESL teachers are paid more than “regular” teachers – but I didn’t see any data to back that up. You also suggested that on average Arlington’s teachers have more experience than Falls Church teachers. Now, both of these things might be true – but how do we know for sure? One interesting data point (to me, anyway) would be to pick a few specific people and compare them. For example, a 5th grade teacher in his 8th year in Falls Church makes $X and a 5th grade teacher in his 8th year in Arlington makes $Y.

        The other thing I don’t quite understand is your question at the end: “why do you think it is ok for the FCCPS to fucus on the performance of the pre-enabled high achievers to the detriment of the children who truly need their help.” I realize the schools tout their successes and they seem to be related to these pre-enabled high achievers – but how is that to the detriment of other kids?

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