It’s a vexing reality that just as the City of Falls Church has come onto the radar screens of serious developers who can bring some major economic development benefits to the City, its schools and quality of life here, that the sustainability of this new development might rise or fall on a public referendum this November that is out of the hands of wise City and school leadership, but in the hands of the too-often-fickle John Q. Public.
Under the rules of the City itself, any proposed bond issue or other expenditure that is higher than 10 percent of the annual operating budget of the City must go to the general electorate for approval. So it will be this November, when the matter of a $15 million bond issue for an renovation and expansion of the Mt. Daniel Elementary School will come before Falls Church voters.
There is nothing written in the stars mandating the City’s referendum rule. It was placed in the City charter in the early 1990s by a City Council dominated by fiscal conservatives with a particular enmity toward school spending then. But once it was added to the charter, it was seen as inviolate, and has been for 25 years.
Who would dare snatch from the general public its now deigned right to sanction large expenditures? Nobody dares suggest there’s something wrong with this, even though the entire citizenry is involved in the election of City Council and School Board members who are expected to make smart decisions about important things like new and expanded school facilities.
Too often, citizens don’t have or take the time to figure out on their own whether a new development is important or necessary. That’s what they elect City Councils for.
The result has been to limit some improvements to below the threshold for a referendum, and thereby to fail to meet an actual need. Some believe this happened in the case of Thomas Jefferson Elementary improvements. By limiting the price tag for the expansion to avoid a referendum, the school was left short of its actual needs, and so now classes are still being taught in temporary trailers there.
But there’s no point in arguing to change this policy now. It would never happen. We remain left with a precarious situation whereby voters just may reject this latest school bond referendum, even though doing so would constitute a major shot in the foot to the City’s future.
What’s driving the City’s escalating potential for new revenues, revenues which will keep pressures on individual taxpayers at bay, is the remarkable reputation of its schools. Nothing would drive a stake in the City’s heart, and bring its potential for future growth to a screeching halt, more cruelly than news of a popular rejection of funding for a new school expansion.
It’s not about the referendum per se. In this case, it’s about maintaining a momentum to the benefit of all.