ANALYSIS: Council Poised to Push Back on Schools’ Budget Request
By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
April 25, 2016
For many years, the song remained the same: Residents concerned about Falls Church City’s property tax rate complained that the City Council wasn’t pushing back enough against school funding requests, and instead gave school officials whatever they wanted.
But that appears poised to change tonight, when the Council is expected to approve a budget that gives the schools $912,000 less than they have asked for.
They aren’t doing that for fun, of course; they are doing it because a majority of the Council has decided they want to keep the property tax rate flat with last year and not raise it by any amount, not even the 2.5 cents proposed in City Manager Wyatt Shields’ initial budget proposal, which is required by law to include the schools’ request without any reductions.
The Council’s stiffer spine seems to have caught school officials by surprise. They are lamenting the impact they say it will have on the schools, and school advocates, including City Councilor Marybeth Connelly and School Board Chair Justin Castillo, have been making calls, sending out emails, and writing pieces encouraging the Council to reconsider.
It’s not a wholesale change. It appears that there are four votes for giving the schools less than they want, and either two or three for accepting the school budget proposal as requested. That could reflect a similar divide among City residents, although it’s difficult to say for sure.
Councilor Phil Duncan is one of the four poised to vote for the budget giving the schools less than they want. Mr. Duncan has never been shy about his desire to hold the tax rate as low as possible, but in the past he has advocated for using some of the City’s reserve fund as one way to hold the rate down. He seems more outspoken this year about the need for school officials to contribute to fiscal discipline.
In an interview ahead of tonight’s vote, Mr. Duncan said he wants school officials to really scrub their budget and see if they can find savings that don’t impact teacher pay or instructional quality. It’s his view that they have not tried hard enough to do so.
“I think the schools would benefit from increasing the public’s confidence…by really sitting down and going line by line through the budget,” he said.
He acknowledges that such an endeavor is hard work, but he thinks residents would like to see that the schools have made that effort.
He further says that if advocates believe there’s no way to maintain the quality of the schools, including the City’s signature small class sizes, in the budget as proposed, future school board candidates, as well as City Council candidates, should expressly run on a platform of increasing taxes in future elections. The school board doesn’t have any control over tax rates, but if board candidates advocating higher taxes were to win, it certainly could indicate that there is resident support for such a plan.
Mr. Duncan appears poised to be joined by councilors Letty Hardi, Mayor David Tarter, and Dan Sze in support of the budget that reduces the schools’ request.
The position of Ms. Hardi, who is in her first term on the Council, may also surprise some. She ran for Council last fall highlighting her commitment to the schools, and her campaign literature mentioned her three children, which gave the impression that she had a very personal interest in the issue.
But, she acknowledges that being on the Council, and representing the whole City, has had an impact on her views.
“However, after diving into both (City and School) budgets, the CIP (capital improvement projects), and future budget years wearing my new hat, my responsibility is to the entire City – not just schools – and for the long term. That means living within our means now, remembering that we are a little city, and challenging what we we can and cannot afford,” Ms. Hardi wrote on her blog.
It is possible that many residents agree. They may want excellent schools, but also fiscal restraint. Time will tell if the Council is striking the right balance.
By Stephen Siegel
April 25, 2016