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As Budget Talks Begin, New School Chief Suggests Novel K-16 Approach

FALLS CHURCH'S new interim superintendent of schools Robert Schiller (second from left) met late into the night with the School Board as it began its budget deliberations for the coming year. (Photo: News-Press)
FALLS CHURCH’S new interim superintendent of schools Robert Schiller (second from left) met late into the night with the School Board as it began its budget deliberations for the coming year. (Photo: News-Press)

Late Tuesday night at the Falls Church School Board’s first work session on its budget for the coming Fiscal Year 2018, newly-hired interim superintendent Dr. Robert Schiller tossed a stunner into the meeting that, if acted upon, could begin a major shift in approach to both the daunting operational and capital educational costs.

As the discussion moved toward hybrid learning and dual degree programs at the high school, Schiller tapped his vast experience as an education and educational consultant to offer, “We should consider the entire K-16 continuum.” That is, instead of looking at K-12, extend the concept to embrace four college years, as well.

“Were we to begin to look at the issues this way, it could have tremendous implications for our current bricks and mortar discussions” (about the need for a new high school complex—ed.), he said.

“We need to consider what the future will look like and how we drive that,” he said. “Today’s paradigm will not look like tomorrow’s.”

Schiller said he brought the subject up because he’s found, in the short time he’s been on the job, the Falls Church School Board to “operate at a very high level.” He suggested the issue be discussed at the School Board’s annual retreat, which is usually held in January.

With the intense discussions ongoing now between the School Board and City Council on how to craft a plan for a new high school, ranging in costs between a renovation at $40 million to a brand new school at $115 million, Schiller’s comment came as a potential game changer.

Overall, at Monday’s joint School Board and Council meeting, the first look at the parameters for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2018 budget process was characterized by City Manager Wyatt Shields as “stark and sobering.”

Daunting new fixed cost increases on both the City and Schools sides are limiting what can be done this coming year, Shields said, although he added that the City’s position is actually better than for surrounding Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

Despite projected revenue growth (before any tax rate increases) of up to $3.5 million (comparing favorably to a projected 2.1 percent for Arlington, and 1.4 percent for Fairfax County), Falls Church will be required by WMATA to increase its annual cash contribution by $500,000 and in addition to take on a net $1 million debt liability to the regional transit body that will cost an additional $130,000-$170,000 per year to service. Other new costs include $220,000 for the retirement fund, $270,000 in health insurance costs and $300,000 in needed pay-as-you-go maintenance.

Despite the hefty added contribution to WMATA (to help pay for the “SafeTrack” rehabilitation effort and resulting decline in ridership), the City will not see the return of 3P WMATA bus route that served it along Route 7 until recently, Assistant City Manager Cindy Mester said tonight.
When asked by Council member Dan Sze if the route might be restored, Mester at first said, “Maybe,” and then added, “But it you want a definitive answer, no.”

On the school system’s side of the upcoming budget, Chief Financial Officer Hunter Kimble said that enrollment as of this September 30, when an official number is designated for the school year, was 2,670, or a 6.4 percent growth over last year’s 2,509, and significantly ahead of the 3.4 percent projected. Class sizes are now running above the school policy level in three grades.

Dr. Schiller told the meeting that between teacher and staff compensation costs and required supplies and so forth, fully 95 percent of school costs are fixed.

But with these this year come a $450,000 increase in payments to the Virginia Retirement System’s retirement fund, a 15 percent increase in health insurance premium costs for $439,000 and the VRS life insurance system for $211,900, along with other factors totaling $890,000 in new fixed costs.
On top of that, he noted that a single “step” increase for teachers would cost $988,000, and a 1 percent salary hike would cost $374,000.

Then the School Board met Tuesday to begin setting the parameters for its January budget request to the City Council. The deliberations on the overall FY18 budget will run through next spring to the end of April for adoption prior to the start of the new fiscal year next July 1.

In their joint meeting Monday, the Council and School also mulled the latest data developed for options in the renovation or new construction of George Mason High School, a matter that will come back to a working group of the two bodies Thursday morning.