OUTSIDE THE BOX: Fear and Loathing in the Little City
By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
May 12, 2013
If you turn on the news, you know will hear something sad. There are stories about fires, explosions, car accidents and shootings. You also may hear someone objecting to something.
Some of their complaints may be legitimate. We all know there are plenty of injustices out there. But the parade of people objecting to everything under the sun wears thin after a while. If you watch enough of the news, it seems like there’s always another grievance.
And so it is in Falls Church City. Yet it shouldn’t be.
The City is in an enviable position: it has homes that sell within days for high prices; a location at the crossroads of booming Northern Virginia; an economy prosperous from the federal government’s stabilizing influence and the explosive growth of the information technology industry.
But ever since moving here in 2008, I have heard people say they wanted to slam shut the city door to keep out that scourge of our society, families with children. The annual battles over the budget are acrimonious.
It’s okay for the debate over the budget to be passionate. Politics ain’t beanbag, goes a famous expression, and people who live near Washington take their politics with a heaping dose of extra serious.
It is to be expected that people defend their positions ardently, but somewhere, somehow, it feels like some have crossed a line somewhere. I was reminded of this anew during the battle over this year’s city budget.
I didn’t have any issue with the differing positions taken by members of the City Council. There was, you may recall, disagreement about how much of an increase the schools should get (once again, a luxury many cities do not have). The disagreement was well explained by City Councilor Johannah Barry in a Falls Church Times article in April.
Instead, what I am talking about is the tone, the language some residents are using during these debates. It is one thing to suggest the schools need to sacrifice. That is a legitimate position. It is quite another to assert that a “school lobby” is using “talking points” to effect a “money grab.”
There’s no doubt Falls Church City spends a lot of money on its schools. So do Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax. The City has to spend more per capita in some cases because it lacks the economies of scale those larger jurisdictions enjoy.
But some of the anger about the school budget was based on a misunderstanding. While the Council voted to increase the city transfer 14 percent, that did not increase funding for school operations 14 percent.
In the 2012-2013 year, the schools spent $38,489,400 on operations. With the Council’s approval, they will spend $40,937,800, a 6.4 percent increase. Enrollment was up 6.9 percent over the last year. The figures come from Superintendent Toni Jones.
Funding for the city schools comes from a variety of sources: Mostly city funding, but also state and federal subsidies. State assistance increased 4.7 percent, but federal just 0.6 percent.
And here’s the kicker: The schools were using money from their fund balance the last several years, which helped keep the amount they needed from the City Council down. That changed with this year’s budget. The amount the school fund balance was being raided to fund operations fell 61 percent this year, from $3.28 million to $1.27 million, necessitating that the money be made up elsewhere.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the schools can’t tighten their collective belts. They can. The question is whether we, as city voters, want them to, which is ultimately a political question.
The city has small schools with small class sizes, which are considered a good thing. But it is a legitimate political position to say that smallness is a luxury we can’t afford, or, to be more precise, one could say we can afford it but that it would be better to have larger class sizes and a lower tax rate, or larger class sizes and more money to spend elsewhere.
That’s what politics is about. But people with that view need to make that case, and not just fire off language complaining about the schoolstalkingpointsmoneygrab. It’s unbecoming a community like ours, and the fear and loathing isn’t healthy — for those on either side.
One could also make the case that we can’t afford to be independent, and that we don’t need to be any more. The city desired its own independence and better quality schools at a time when Fairfax County was extremely rural.
Times have changed. Fairfax is now one of the wealthiest counties in the nation and has many excellent schools. Ditto for Arlington. If we just gave up independence, and became as one with one of our neighbors, perhaps we could have excellent schools and a lower tax rate.
That’s a political choice as well. But it’s one I doubt most City residents would make.
Outside the Box is an opinion column. Read it every Sunday in the Falls Church Times.
By Stephen Siegel
May 12, 2013