By Carolyn Bruce, Laura Downs & Mary Stevens
With the recent recognition as “Healthiest City in America,” our city has a lot to be proud of – walkability, access to healthy food and exercise options and great schools. Our school system prides itself in playing an essential role in the wellbeing of our city. We all hear time and time again from new families, “we moved here for the schools” and notice real estate ads boasting, “Falls Church City Schools!” Our school system not only teaches our children, it increases the value of our homes. Clearly, the strong show of support for the George Mason High School construction bond referendum demonstrates our residents understand the importance and needs of our school system. Of course, we realize the city has other important components – cultural venues, restaurants, community events, parks and walking trails, and an award-winning farmers market and library. We also understand the city has needs – public safety, street and pedestrian improvements and affordable housing to name a few. That is why we support the Falls Church City Public Schools’ (FCCPS) FY 2019 School Board budget request. The 2.8 percent requested increase is based on a prudent and lean budget, with the school system sacrificing two-thirds of requests from teachers and principals. The proposed budget will not require a tax rate increase as revenue growth is higher than expected at 3.4 percent. It should be noted that both the proposed city and school budgets have a negative impact on the tax rate, allowing for a 3-cent reduction. The 4.5 cent tax increase is the result of the 3-cent reduction offset by servicing our debt (5 cents) and covering the cost of WMATA (2.5 cents). Our school leaders crafted a conservative budget. In fact, FCCPS’ request is the lowest requested increase in the last six years.
The centerpiece of the proposed budget is a 3 percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for all FCCPS employees. That not only includes our teachers but also our bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers- every employee of the school system – and the increase is identical to that proposed for City employees. As Governor McAuliffe left office, he stated that the number one challenge the new governor will face is the teacher shortage in Virginia. Our “human capital” is vital to the health of the system and as such a fair and competitive wage is necessary. Just as affordable housing is important in our city, let’s compensate our staff so that they can afford to live here. While the COLA will improve our teacher pay, on average FCCPS’ teacher salary scale is still below Arlington’s current salaries and many surrounding school systems are proposing salary increases, averaging 4.0 percent for their employees. The requested budget increase would also fund an additional school psychologist (our current ratio of one psychologist per 1,300 students is nearly double the recommended ratio of 1:700).
After accounting for all adjustments, FCCPS’ operating budget is only increasing by 0.8 percent. With reduced state funding, revenue beyond the 2 percent guidance from the City Council is essential to continue to offer the high-quality education Falls Church City expects from its schools. FCCPS has also made a good faith effort to scrub its budget and make reductions and realignments to fund its remaining Triennial Plan priorities.
While it is true that with a transfer of less than 2.8 percent, the COLA could still be covered, it would mean other areas would need to be cut. These areas include George Mason High School band instrument replacement, PYP Coordinator for Mt. Daniel and Thomas Jefferson, Mary Ellen Henderson Math Specialist, clerical support for Jessie Thackrey, a school psychologist and a special education specialist. Other options to cover the gap could include reducing the COLA (which at 3 percent is already below most of our surrounding school systems) or eliminating teacher positions which could affect class size.
The FCCPS stated mission is to be the premier International Baccalaureate school division in the country. The School Board’s proposed budget provides support for the FCCPS mission while maintaining small class sizes. We feel the 2.8 percent budget increase is vital as it will enable all our employees – teachers, staff, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers — to receive a 3 percent cost of living adjustment without cuts to other critical areas. The GMHS Athletic Boosters Association and the FCCPS Band Boosters Association also strongly support this budget.
Our organizations raise thousands and thousands of dollars each year to cover areas such as equipment and supplies, teacher grants and professional development opportunities. Every year the requests from our principals, teachers and staff exceed what we can fundraise. Understanding the fiscal challenges our city faces, we strongly support the School Board budget. It is conservative and lean, only covering what is necessary to keep our school system performing at the level our residents expect, and it supports fair wages for our teachers and staff.
Laura Downs is president of the Falls Church City Elementary PTA, Carolyn Bruce is president of the Mary Ellen Henderson PTA and Mary Stevens is president of the George Mason High School PTSA.