News

School Funding Issues Dominate As F.C. Budget Decision Nears

AT SUNDAY’S TOWN HALL on the Falls Church budget for the coming fiscal year, the audience heard reports from City Manager Wyatt Shields and School Board Vice Chair Phil Reitinger. (Photo:  News-Press)
AT SUNDAY’S TOWN HALL on the Falls Church budget for the coming fiscal year, the audience heard reports from City Manager Wyatt Shields and School Board Vice Chair Phil Reitinger. (Photo: News-Press)

As the deadline looms for the adoption of the next fiscal year’s budget for the City of Falls Church and its schools, all the attention is focused on the places where proposed expenses are going to require up to a four-cent increase in the real estate tax rate.

The two places where this is coming from are both school-related, and defined by the national reputation of the school system’s excellence on the one hand, leading to its becoming the fastest growing school district in Virginia, on the other.

One cent of the tax rate increase (over the current $1.315 per $100 of assessed valuation) proposed in City Manager Wyatt Shields’ recommended budget is for growth-driven school operational costs, and another three cents (one cent being worth $400,000) to build a reserve fund to help with the cost of a new high school that voters will be asked to approve in November.

The cost of that new high school has yet to be determined, as two special committees are now actively working out the parameters of the desired school plant itself, and how much economic development on school property can be expected to mitigate that cost for taxpayers.

The wisdom of Shields’ recommendation for the three-cent, or $1.2 million, add to the tax rate for the school construction reserve is being being hotly contested among the seven member Falls Church City Council. So is the ask by the School Board for a penny ($400,000) more for its Fiscal Year 2018 operating budget than the Council had earlier indicated it wanted schools to ask for.

With all these contentious issues swirling around City Hall, there are only two and a half weeks left until the decisive vote by the Council needs to be taken in order to have tax bills reflect what the City and schools must begin spending on July 1.

But the school-centric Falls Church city begins its annual week-long “time out” for spring break tomorrow, and once that’s over the Council will have just a week to sort out the mix of needs and public sentiments to arrive at a budget number on April 24.

“My family and I moved to the City of Falls Church a few years ago for the schools. We didn’t come here to suddenly be told that there will be cutbacks in the school budget.”

This loud, clarion comment from a new Falls Church citizen defined the tone for Sunday afternoon’s town hall on the budget held in the City Council chambers of City Hall, led by Shields and School Board vice chair Phil Reitinger.

Yet even the budget that the City Council is slated to adopt in two and a half weeks includes no less than $1.7 million in unmet needs for the City’s schools, as was graphically illustrated during the School Board’s own deliberations last month about what to ask the Council to fund.

As it was, the School Board ask came in $389,000 higher than the Council said it wanted. It wants to match expenses with a modest 2.7 percent increase in City revenues.

Now, there are those on the Council solid in their resolve to deny that extra $400,000, some whispering in private a “certainty” that the School Board can find a way to make up the difference.
But Reitinger’s presentation of the School Board ask Sunday challenged that sentiment, being an articulate summation of what the board struggled with since the beginning of the new year. He noted that the current request totals $900,000 less on a per pupil basis than 10 years ago.

Enrollment growth, which was over six percent this past year, is projected to be 2.8 percent in the fall, and the growth is not primarily due to new mixed use projects that have come online since 2003. Based on a detailed study, of 800 new students that have come into Falls Church’s system since 2003, only 200, or 25 percent, have come from residences in new mixed use projects.

Most come from single family homes, especially as older residents move out of them and lots get split making way for two larger homes likely to bring in two or three new school aged children each.

In fact, mixed use projects yield in tax revenues to the City an equivalent of $35,000 per new student, or double the cost of educating a student for a year.

Pressures on taxes, Shields said, have come more from “structural changes” such as the loss by the City of its ability to take an annual return on investment from its water system, resulting in the sale of the system three years ago.

Reitinger emphasized that the School Board’s priority has been to maintain small class sizes, on the one hand, and good teachers with competitive salaries and benefits on the other. Everything else has taken a backseat to these.

Eighty-five percent of all the costs of the school system are “people costs,” he said.

Shields conceded “there is a lot on our plate” now with renovations to City Hall, the library and the high school all coming, and ballooning costs to the City for its share of WMATA, the regional transportation authority, despite the fact that WMATA has canceled one important bus line that it was running until last year down the center of Falls Church.

The City and its schools get very little money from the state and almost nothing from the federal government, except for single-project grants.
In the last year, the City has enjoyed a relatively robust revenue growth from new real estate development, and a lot more of that will be needed to offset the challenges now before it.

Five of the seven members of the City Council were present at Sunday afternoon’s town hall. David Snyder, Mary Beth Connelly, Letty Hardi, Karen Oliver and Phil Duncan were all there.

Despite spring break next week, the City Council will hold its bi-monthly business meeting this Monday, April 17, when the public will be invited to make or submit comments on the budget. The campus economic development task force will meet at City Hall this Friday at 7:30 a.m.