By Justin Castillo
On Monday, April 28, the Falls Church City Council will make important decisions regarding the City’s budget, including whether to fund the School Board’s budget at the requested level. While the Council’s recent work session was constructive, the schools still could face over $300,000 in cuts. That makes it a good time to review the proposed FCCPS budget and to explain what is driving the requested increases.
This is also a good opportunity to dispel some stubborn myths about our schools and our budget and to highlight several points that the community should keep in mind as we discuss the City’s finances:
First, while some want to pit “the Schools” against “the City” in a budgetary battle royal, the fact is that we’re all in this together. The City Council and the School Board understand this and have been working together amicably and productively.
Second, comparisons with nearby jurisdictions reveal that the schools do not take a disproportionate share of the budget. The current 45 percent requested is in line with both Fairfax and Arlington.
Third, budgeted per-pupil costs are in line with those of our neighbors ($16,991 in FY14 for Falls Church compared to $18,880 in Arlington, and $16,880 in Alexandria).
Fourth, we operate our school system efficiently. In fact, a recent efficiency study praised the schools’ lean administrative organization. The instructional side is equally efficient: The inflation-adjusted per-pupil City transfer in FY 15 is 17 percent lower than it was in FY2007.
Finally, the schools are not “getting everything they want,” and there are substantial unmet needs: The Superintendent identified nearly $2.4 million in professional development, staffing, maintenance and other vital items, but chose not to include them in her request given the priority of addressing student enrollment increases.
Budgets reflect priorities, and the three priorities that drove the increases in the requested budget this year are: 1) closing the teacher pay gap; 2) maintaining class size in the face of rising enrollment; and 3) meeting our legal obligations.
Our first priority is to close the teacher pay gap over the next four years, which accounts for about a third of the proposed budget increase. The pay gap, which started over the past several years, has grown to the point where FCCPS teachers earn 5 to 25 percent less than their colleagues in surrounding school divisions, which is affecting our ability to retain teachers. For example, we recently lost some excellent teachers because Arlington pays as much as $21,000 more per year than we do. The pay gap also hampers our ability to attract new teachers. This is a serious problem given that we must replace or augment 40 percent of our teaching staff over the next five years due to retirement, attrition, and growth.
As a footnote, three percent of the raise many of our teaching staff will receive this year will go directly to the Virginia Retirement System, which means that they won’t see any increase in their paycheck.
The second budget driver is rising enrollment, which accounts for about half of the increase in this year’s budget request. Falls Church is the fastest-growing school division in Northern Virginia, growing by over 6 percent this year. We expect another 172 students next year, which is approximately one grade’s worth of students. That figure could be higher if new development yields more students than forecast.
More students means more teachers (personnel costs comprise 85 percent of the budget) to keep class sizes manageable. Without money to hire new teachers, some class sizes could be substantially over policy limits even though average class size has increased in recent years.
The final budget driver consists of mandated programs, which account for the remainder of the increase in this year’s request. These include increases in health care premiums, retirement premiums, security funding and special education staffing.
The proposed budget reflects what FCCPS needs. While the School Board scrutinized the Superintendent’s proposed budget and cut over $290,000, it was not possible to make further cuts without jeopardizing class size and/or instructional programs. It is my hope that the City Council will be mindful of this fact and that it will fund the requested budget in full.
While we face some tough challenges, we should remember that the members of the “Greatest Generation” who created the modern City of Falls Church after World War II overcame demographic and fiscal challenges that seem far more daunting. For example, those who believe that the City is overrun by young families with kids (currently about 25 percent of the population is under 19) should look back to 1960, when 42 percent of the City’s population was under 19. And while enrollment is growing (it’s about 2,600), it was almost 2,300 in the mid-1960s, when the population of the Little City was far smaller. We met those challenges then, and we can meet the new challenges now.
Justin Castillo is vice chair of the Falls Church City School Board.