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.

April 25, 2016 


7 Responses to “ANALYSIS: Council Poised to Push Back on Schools’ Budget Request”

  1. TFC on April 25th, 2016 1:26 pm

    In spite of the word *cut* I hope folks realize the schools still get an increase over last year….just not as much as they requested. Mr. D will have his opportunity to say “I vote to increase the school transfer by XX% over last year” rather than use the word cut.
    Since Mr Snyder was on travel for mark up night……tonight he will make his final budget thoughts known. Ahhhhhh, the suspense.

  2. Stephen Siegel on April 25th, 2016 4:35 pm


    Thanks for your comment. You will note, however, that I did not use the word “cut.” I could clarify that it remains an increase, though.

  3. TFC on April 25th, 2016 6:27 pm

    Didn’t mean to imply it was you Stephen. Only that the “hair on fire” word being passed around by schools says it’s a cut, cut, cut….rather than view the other side….an increase but less than asked.

    The papers for tonight make an interesting mathematical note….worth parsing.

    I am still unclear if Gov’t side is absorbing the health ins premium increase for both school and Gov’t or leaving the school to figure out how to pay their own.
    Guess we will find out tonight.

  4. Stephen Siegel on April 25th, 2016 7:47 pm

    Understood. In their defense, it is a cut in their request. But I don’t know if that’s what they mean. The word “cut” is used in many different ways in budgeting.

  5. Schools Need it all on April 28th, 2016 10:07 am

    When are you all going to realize that the schools are why you live here? 99.9999% of all of the activity in this 2 square miles of nirvana are because of, in support of, and through the school system. You do not move to Falls Church City because of the night life, the amazing city layout, the large housing lots, or the cultural diversity. You move here because of the schools, if you moved here for anything else you’re a fool.

    Get it through your heads people, if you think you can retire here after your kids are done? You’re not only a fool you’re clueless. The world is shifting form the “Hey honey, let’s put down roots here and stay until we die” to the “let’s get our kids into the best schools system, take advantage of it, and then when they’re done, beat feet and move on to a more retirement friendly city”.

    The property values, the lack of diversity, and the economy of the little city all driven by and benefit from the value of the educational system deployed here. So stop acting like the schools don’t deserve it… come on give them what they need.

  6. Michael Volpe, Falls Church on April 28th, 2016 11:16 am

    In response to “School Need it all” I would offer that some of us plan to stay. I moved here in 1975 from my boyhood home in Arlington, and Falls Church was the lifetime home of my wife and her mother. Our two children attended the public schools and graduated in 1997 and 2007. We have no plans to leave since I now have roots in our church, community groups like VPIS, and the Cherry Hill Farmhouse. We still enjoy the close proximity to D.C. where my wife works and where we enjoy the theater, concerts, etc. I hope to see you and others at the Farmers Market, Memorial Day parade, Summer Concerts, and other local activities.

  7. Brian Williams on April 28th, 2016 12:25 pm

    I’m with Michael in terms of planning to stay after my kids are grown. Through my work on the EDA, I’m working to (a) create a more broad tax base that will offset single-family home residential taxes, and, perhaps more importantly, (b) establish more reasons for people without kids to stay — more dining, entertainment, and shopping options as well as office space that provides a good work/life balance. If we can support the right kind of development here over the next couple of decades, Falls Church City will provide even more reasons to come and stay beyond just our wonderful schools.

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