School Board To Mayor: Alas, We Have Not A Penny
By George Southern and Stan Fendley
City Council went on a scavenger hunt last night, looking for a spare $170,000 it thought might be hidden away in the School Board’s almost $37 million budget.
To paraphrase: “Show me your penny,” said Councilman Dan Maller. “Alas, we have not any,” replied School Board Chairman Ron Peppe, backstopped by assistant finance superintendent Hunter Kimble.
The search for spare change was an effort to preserve two jobs at City Hall targeted for elimination — “the most painful decision I’ve ever made,” said City Manager Wyatt Shields.
Tell us about pain, responded Peppe: Last year the schools cut 15 people. This year we’ve already cut $1 million from the budget. The only way to cut any further is to increase class size or reduce salaries.
The drama heightened with the Falls Church Educators Association, as members stood in solidarity while President Joel Block delivered an emotional rebuttal of the concept of “equity” between school employees and City employees.
If you want to talk about equity, said Block, why do City employees pay less health care costs than school employees? Why is it equitable to penalize 400 school employees to raise money for two positions on the government side that the city manager didn’t even have in his budget?
Mayor Robin Gardner acknowledged that Block’s speech was “very passionate,” but wanted him to know that the school jobs lost last year “did not go unnoticed.” Then she made a true confession: “It was my suggestion about the $170,000. The School Board represents the teachers and school staff. That’s their job. The City Council fights for the City staff. That’s our job. I know that $170,000 was a big amount to ask, but I didn’t think it was astronomical or out of line.”
The positions Gardner wants to restore aren’t exactly known. Councilman Nader Baroukh tried to find out, but City Manager Shields was reluctant to say in public. Three full-time jobs are proposed for elimination — a housing specialist, a police department information technology specialist, and Shields’ own administrative assistant. Unclear is which positions would be restored, or if some mix of all three would become part-time jobs.
Councilman Dan Maller seemed sure there must be a little leeway in the School budget. Flush with success in his effort to fund the GEORGE bus with extra money from the state trust fund, Maller tried to “do a GEORGE” on the School budget. He noted that the Schools’ “fund balance” has “been building up over years.” Finance guru Kimble acknowledged that the fund balance was $890,000 this year and would be $1.1 million next year.
That sounds like a surplus, Maller suggested.
Nope — the fund balance is our operating balance, Peppe shot back.
Vice Mayor Hal Lippman confessed that he didn’t understand the fund balance, either.
[Note: In an effort to explain the school fund balance issue, chief financial officer John Tuohy wrote an April 24 memo -- click to read.]
With less than four days left before Council approves the City budget April 27, it’s unclear if Gardner will push ahead with the school cut proposal.
Councilman Dave Snyder said he would not support the proposed school cut, nor would he support a tax increase above the four-cent hike already planned. Snyder instead urged finding additional funding by limiting payments to consultants.
Councilman Maller said that he did not see Falls Church as being in a real economic emergency, and that absent such an emergency he would be reluctant to cut the school budget.
Vice Mayor Lippman and Councilman Lawrence Webb appeared to support Gardner’s proposal, with Lippman stating that the current situation constitutes the “most significant economic times since the Great Depression,” and Webb intoning that city government employees “are just as important as the teachers.”
Councilman Baroukh did not tip his hand, but said he was “looking for facts.” He asked City Manager Shields why he originally proposed eliminating the positions, rather than saving money through furloughs or benefit cuts. Shields replied that reducing benefits packages is complicated and creates uncertainty, and imposing furloughs is really a pay cut with time off. “I need to know how you plan to use the money,” Baroukh emphasized.
Councilman Dan Sze stated his support for the schools, but did not clarify his position on Gardner’s proposal. However, during the public comment period, after Sze heard resident Justin Castillo’s opposition to cutting the School budget, Sze surprised the gathering by calling Castillo back to the podium for cross-examination.
“I’ll use you as a proxy for the empassioned speeches we’ve heard tonight, some of which I thought verged on being rude,” Sze said, as he proceeded to quiz Castillo. “Do you know what the national unemployment rate is?” Yes, Castillo replied — 8 percent. Sze further asked whether Castillo expected the economy to improve soon, and whether he was happy with the City’s services.
“I was surprised to be questioned,” Castillo said afterward.
Other citizens speaking included Ed Salzberg, a 30-year resident who said he “hates to see us losing the quality of life” that he termed the “Mayberry aspect” of Falls Church.
Phyllis Kravinsky noted as a City school teacher, who also has taught in Arlington, that she fears her colleagues are being attracted by the higher salaries offered in Arlington. “Teachers listen” to the signals coming from City Council, she said.
Deepak Dobhal said that when he came to the United States he researched schools in the area and decided Falls Church schools were the best. For many seeking a place to live, he said, the important factor “is not Town Hall, it’s schools. We all would lose if our kids lose.”
FCC-TV will re-air its broadcast of the meeting at the following dates and times:
Friday April 24 at Noon
Saturday, April 25th at 9:00 a.m.
Sunday, April 26th at 5:00 p.m.
Monday, April 27th at 9:30 a.m.
FCC-TV airs on Cox Channel 12, RCN Channel 2 and Verizon Channel 35.
By (see byline)
April 24, 2009