One Year In: An Interview With the New Superintendent
By STEPHEN SIEGEL
Falls Church Times Staff
May 8, 2012
When Toni Jones was hired as the new superintendent of the Falls Church City Schools last year, it may have come as a surprise to some. Many new faces among city officials have experience locally, especially in Arlington or Fairfax counties, while she hailed from distant Oklahoma.
But she ran a highly regarded independent school system there, and has lived in major cities before, among them Sydney, Australia.
The Times recently sat down with her to discuss her early impressions and ideas after a few months on the job.
The first thing she says, in response to a question, is that she hasn’t really found anything shocking or unexpected among what she’s learned thus far, in part because she did ample research on the City and its schools beforehand.
“I feel like I studied the district for a year,” she said. “I’m not going to say there were no surprises, but I tried to do my homework before going here. I understood the demographics.
“The biggest change was living in Northern Virginia,” which has a much larger population than suburban Oklahoma City, where she was superintendent of the district of Deer Creek.
Nevertheless, she likes Falls Church City’s feel of a village within a major metropolitan area. “It’s like living in a small town but has all the luxuries,” she says.
Asked if the area’s steep real estate prices provided any sticker shock, she says no. “I was used to Sydney. I was ready for it here.”
However, the high real estate prices do affect Dr. Jones’ job: they are a major driver of the schools’ budget, as the cost of living in the area means salaries need to be higher. And salaries are the biggest portion of that budget, which is increasing 7% this year.
“Most of our spending is teachers,” she says. But she is quick to point out that another driver of the spending is the growing student population, and that spending per student has been declining for several years, from over $19,000 per student to about $16,000 now.
Dr. Jones also recognizes that while the community wants top-notch schools, many people in town — and on the City Council — are concerned about their cost.
“We have to be very prudent and make good decisions and make sure we’re spending money on aspects that really make a difference in the classroom for children,” she says, adding: “Anybody that works with me knows that being fiscally responsible is something I take a lot of pride in. We’re only asking for what’s necessary to sustain the excellence that we all expect for Falls Church City.”
Another factor driving the spending, while teacher-related, is different and unavoidable, at least by local officials: teacher retirement costs, which are mandated by the state-run Virginia Retirement System (VRS), are rising dramatically in order to put the system, which has billions in unfunded liabilities, on sounder financial footing.
In fact, that’s the biggest issue facing the school budget this year. It’s costing $1.1 million, plus $200,000 in VRS insurance costs. “That’s the greatest increase in Virginia history,” Dr. Jones said, adding that $350,000 would be a more typical figure.
Then there’s the increase in students. Falls Church City schools are in great demand, which is being reflected in a surging City real estate market, and the number of students this year is the “largest year over year increase in 30 years,” Dr. Jones said. “And we didn’t hire any new staff this year. That’s why next year there are five new teachers in the budget — that’s for kids who are already here.”
Another reason for the increase is the number of students who come from multi-unit developments such as Pearson Square on Maple Avenue, where Dr. Jones says as many as 100 kids are at the bus stop.
Pearson Square originally was built to be high-end condos costing in the range of $800,000 a piece for three bedroom floor plans, but the building was completed as the condo market was collapsing in 2008. The developer then chose to rent them as apartments instead.
That made Pearson Square an attractive alternative to single family homes for families who wanted into the City schools. The building subsequently was sold and the new owner intends to keep the units as rentals, at least for the near future.
“We have no plan at the moment to change the property use,” said Robert Ruffatto, managing director of Pearlmark Real Estate Partners, in a telephone interview. “The property is performing extremely well.”
Pearson Square also has added a State Department contract, which added still more children to the schools.
Asked if she is concerned about the rapid enrollment growth and the City’s ability to support it, Dr. Jones said they managed such growth in Deer Creek for many years, and that it wasn’t a problem there. She also doesn’t believe it’s part of her job description to worry about it.
“I think it’s very optimstic to think that you can control growth,” she said. “I leave that up to city planners. They know growth means more children. The city hires experts in that field.”
Dr. Jones also didn’t want to sound as if she wasn’t welcoming all the students that live in the City.
“When you have apartments and condos, they are going to be full of families,” she said matter-of-factly. Speaking specifically of the State Department families, she added: “You couldn’t choose a better population to join our schools and really contribute to our schools. They bring a unique diversity.
“We have children who have lived all over the world. When I sit in the classroom and listen, it’s fascinating the experiences the children are able to share.”
Few would disagree with that sentiment, but at the same time, the State Department contract imposes costs, particularly when the city schools already are pushing capacity. Asked if perhaps the City could get any reimbursement from the federal government, she said: “Great question. That’s one thing I’m really studying.”
Because of the capacity issues, plans for expansion and renovation are moving ahead. Thomas Jefferson Elementary School is first on the list, with expansion beginning this summer. The plan remains to move fifth grade back to TJ from Mary Ellen Henderson when the expansion is complete, which is scheduled for April 2013. The expansion includes 15 new classrooms, a kitchen renovation, and new pavement.
A possible expansion of Mt. Daniel also is under discussion, and plans to move the Mt. Daniel preschool program to the Child Development Center on Cherry Street continue apace. That’s been controversial because it would oust the Easter Seals’ popular daycare program from that location, but Dr. Jones said it makes the most financial sense.
“In Falls Church City, if you have the opportunity to own a piece of property, you have to go do it. It’s much more expensive to acquire new land.”
She also said officials have begun discussions about George Mason High School’s future. “We have some work to do to figure out what needs to be done. It’s very old — we work hard to make it look nice, keeping the floors waxed, keeping it painted. The ceilings are very low, and the heating and cooling environmental impact is a challenge.
Another challenge, she said, is security, because of the number of doors to the building and because of the use of trailers that are outside the main building, which was built in 1952. Because of that concern — and concern about the location near Interstate 66 and the West Falls Church Metro Station — the school has a high-tech locking system that unlocks the doors automatically when the bell rings so students can go from trailer to building and vice versa. The system then re-locks the doors when the second bell rings and students are at their new classroom.
The issue of a how to pay for a new high school also became an issue in the just-concluded City Council elections, as several candidates mentioned its estimated $90 million price tag.
Part of the challenge is the size of the parcel that would be needed. The current high school is on a 30 acre site. “It’s not easy to find that size of a parcel. We’re keeping a very open-minded look at every creative option available to us.”
By Stephen Siegel
May 8, 2012