ANALYSIS: Council Poised to Push Back on Schools’ Budget Request

April 25, 2016 by · 7 Comments 

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.

Fundraiser for Annual GMHS Graduation Party Set for Saturday

April 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Special to the Falls Church Times
April 20, 2016

For the 27th year, the George Mason High School All Night Grad Celebration is being planned for this year’s seniors. To help defray the cost, organizers are holding a fundraiser Saturday from 3 to 6 pm at Clare & Don’s Beach Shack on North Washington Street.

Called the Byrd Feeder after Mason Principal Ty Byrd, the fundraiser will feature a silent auction hosted by Mr. Byrd. It’s an event for the entire GMHS parent community, featuring auction items donated by GMHS families, local organizations, and other businesses. The Byrd Feeder netted more than $6,000 last year.

The all-night party, known as the ANGC, had its start 27 years ago, when GMHS parents, concerned about the risks of alcohol, drugs, and unsafe driving at traditional “grad night” celebrations, decided to offer new graduates a fun, safe alternative.

Now a cherished tradition with participation rates averaging more than 90 percent over the last several years, ANGC boasts a certain mystique that keeps the kids engaged and eager to sign up year after year. Outgoing seniors share stories of the activities and entertainment with underclass students but are asked to keep mum on certain aspects in order for each class to enjoy some surprises.

For virtually all GMHS grads, the ANGC is exactly how they want to celebrate the milestone of high school graduation. And in the 27 years ANGC has been held, the Falls Church City community has not experienced a single accident or fatality on graduation night.

Upon their return to GMHS after the graduation ceremony at DAR Constitution Hall on June 22, at 11:15 p.m. the new graduates will reconvene inside GMHS to party the night (and morning) away with their classmates. While some schools that host all-night grad parties allow non-graduate guests, at GMHS the focus for the new grads is enjoying their last hours together as a unified class.

This year’s ANGC will feature entertainment by an illusionist, casino games and unique attractions, plus many chances to collect raffle tickets toward fabulous door prizes, many of which have been donated by the local business community. At 5 a.m. on June 23, the graduates will leave GMHS for the very last time as a class – and most will head right home for a well-deserved nap. (GMHS opens as usual shortly afterward for the arrival of faculty, staff and underclass students.)

An event of ANGC’s scale comes at a high price. Despite an all-volunteer team of parent organizers contributing their time and talent, significant cash outlays are required in order to secure quality entertainment, keep hundreds of active grads nourished and hydrated for six hours of partying, and to ensure top-notch safety and security from start to finish. To that end, ANGC aggressively fundraisers throughout the school year, starting with a letter mailed to GMHS families in the fall. Committee members reach out to local business for corporate sponsorships and prize donations, publicize restaurant fundraisers, host at-home special events, and keep up the buzz on social media and FCCPS communications.

For almost a year, George Mason High School parent Julie Donnelly has been in charge of planning this year’s event. It requires coordination of food, entertainment and prizes, as well as the less-glamorous but vital elements of security, insurance and fire safety. Donnelly supports and cheerleads dozens of team members tasked with securing cash donations and items to be auctioned off in support of the event, dedicated fundraising events, prize collection, publicity, decorating, volunteer coordination and bookkeeping.

But here’s the kicker: Mrs. Donnelly’s own kids can’t attend this event – at least not this year. Her kids, Maeve and Erik Donnelly, will have their chances to attend the ANGC in 2017 and 2020, but their mom has devoted hundreds of hours, and counting, to planning the event of a lifetime for this year’s seniors only. Due to the massive scope of the event as well as the flurry of activities parents of graduates must manage, the chair of ANGC is traditionally the parent of an underclass student, and it’s a role Donnelly has performed with efficiency, grace, good humor and endless patience.

“The ANGC is an all-year commitment, but after having been involved as a committee member last year and seeing the result of our work, I was happy to take on the chair position and work with parents who feel as strongly as I do about the importance of providing this kind of event,” Donnelly says. “It’s exciting and rewarding to work with the talented ANGC team to organize a fun, memorable and safe ANGC – one that we hope all of our seniors will always remember.”

GMHS parents are encouraged to volunteer, and anyone may donate to the cause. For more information, click here:

City Manager Proposes Budget With Real Estate and Personal Property Tax Increases

March 15, 2016 by · 2 Comments 

March 15, 2016

City Manager Wyatt Shields on Monday night proposed a Fiscal Year 2017 budget of $87 million, an increase of 5.1 percent over the previous fiscal year. The proposed budget provides for a 1.2 percent ($438,421) increase in general government operating expenditures and a 5.4 percent ($2,065,130) increase in local funding for public schools, as requested by the School Board and required by City ordinance.

Three tax increases are proposed by the City Manager to meet needs and requirements set forth in the budget. A 2.5 cent increase in the real estate tax – from $1.315 to $1.34 per $100 of assessed value – is proposed to meet the school funding request. Taxes for the median home value of $647,800 would increase $163.

Mr. Shields also proposed a 16 cent increase on the personal property tax – from $4.84 to $5 per $100 of assessed value – and a 10 cent increase on the cigarette tax – from 75 cents to 85 cents per pack – to help offset a $627,112 increase in Metro funding required of local governments. The increase in the personal property tax would mean an additional $27 for the average car tax bill in the City.

The Capital Improvements Program (CIP) contains significant projects this year and for the subsequent four year planning period. The five year total is $128 million, and includes the high school and middle school; improvements to Big Chimney Park, Cherry Hill Park and Herman Stream Valley Park; and upgrades to Fire Station 6. Two new projects are the downtown West Broad Street Plaza and funding for land acquisition. Transportation projects totaling about $6 million are largely grant funded, and include Oak Street and Sherrow Avenue bridge repairs, Roosevelt Boulevard roadbed reconstruction, intersection improvements, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

The Council will adopt a final budget on April 25 after three public hearings and two town hall meetings. The 2017 fiscal year runs from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017. Documents, presentations and video are posted or will be posted to the City’s website, and made available at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. The schedule of budget meetings and public hearings is also available on the website.

An Open House and Town Hall will take place this Saturday, March 19, at 10 a.m. in the Community Center. At the event, community members can meet with department directors, project managers and school representatives to ask questions about budget priorities. There will be presentations and a question and answer session. The City Council and School Board members will be in attendance to hear public comment and answer questions.

A second Town Hall will take place on April 9 at 10 a.m. in the Community Center with a budget presentation and opportunities for questions and answers and public comment.

Public comment also is open at the City Council’s regular meetings, including March 28, April 11 and April 25. The City Council’s work sessions do not allow for public comment, but are open to the public: March 21, April 4 and April 18.

Additionally, public comments and questions may be sent via email to [email protected].

Dream Season Ends in Semis for Mason Boys’ Hoops

March 11, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
March 11, 2016

The George Mason High School Boys Basketball team was living the dream. Winners of its first 29 games this season, including a last second, 74-72, thriller earlier this week, they were poised for an unbelievable 30th straight victory against zero losses as they headed to Richmond.

But their hopes for a state championship were dashed in the semifinal round of the playoffs by the Greensville County Eagles, who came from behind in overtime to end Mason’s stunning season Friday, 66-63.

Had they won, Mason would have played for all the marbles Saturday afternoon at 4 pm. Instead, they’ll head back north while Greensville County takes the place they wanted. Greensville is a rural county near the North Carolina border.

It wasn’t like they didn’t give it their best shot. Trailing 30-23 at the half, the Mason boys battled back and took a 55-51 lead in the fourth quarter, only to see Greensville tie it up shortly thereafter. Greensville then scored again to take a 57-55 lead late, but Mason’s Elliot Mercado, a senior and the team’s second leading scorer, was fouled with 27 seconds left.

Mr. Mercado may never have been in such a pressure-packed situation as this. The game and the season were on the line. Literally. But he nailed both free throws, making it look like he’d done it before. And the two teams headed for overtime.

Mason scored first in the overtime and even opened up what seemed like an insurmountable, 6 point lead at 63-57 halfway through the extra period. But this time, it was Greensville that showed resolve, digging deep and coming back, even without their two best scorers, who had fouled out. They tied the game at 63, and then hit a huge three point shot with just seconds remaining. A desperation three by Mason missed as time expired, and their season abruptly ended with a record of 29-1.

Mason Boosters Annual Mulch Sale Underway

March 10, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

March 10, 2016

It certainly has been spring-like the last several days, and that reminds us that the annual George Mason High School Athletic Boosters Association spring mulch sale is underway.

For the 23rd year, student athletes will donate their time to load and deliver mulch to homes throughout Falls Church. This is the Athletic Boosters’ largest fundraiser, and proceeds are used to provide student scholarships, end-of-season and Hall of Fame banquets, banners that hang in the Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School gym, as well as big ticket items, including the baseball/softball field lights and equipment purchases.

The high quality, shredded hard-bark mulch comes in three-cubic-foot bags, which sell for $5.00 each. Those interested can purchase mulch online at the Fan Shop. Order forms also are available at the Community Center, Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and all Falls Church City Public Schools offices.

When you order, be sure to note where you want the mulch placed on delivery day. The deadline for orders is March 22. Deliveries will be made on Saturday, April 2.

For more information, contact: Surbhi Ashton, [email protected].

Transformer Explosion Cuts Power and Closes Roads

March 9, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
March 9, 2016

A truck attempting to park on Ellison Street hit a support wire for an electrical transformer Tuesday afternoon, causing a chain reaction that cut power to nearly 50 homes and businesses for an extended period.

The power outage briefly shut down the traffic light at Broad and West streets, and forced the closure of Ellison and Patterson streets as crews from Dominion Power brought in multiple equipment trucks to replace or repair the damaged transformers.

The episode began around 2:30 pm Tuesday. When the truck hit the support wire, which was secured into the concrete sidewalk, the transformer it was holding exploded with a thundering noise, and the top several feet of it broke off but did not fall. That may have been fortunate, because an electrical repair worker told the Times that it contains 20,000 volts, a very dangerous amount of power.

However, the toppling of that transformer damaged several others on the street, and the one at the corner of Ellison and West streets rained pieces of wood on a car that was driving by. The driver was not injured.

Police quickly cordoned off the streets and City crews reactivated the Broad and West intersection with a generator. Dominion crews came and replaced the one broken transformer with a brand new pole, cut off the broken top of the other one, and placed new fiberglass arms on the tops of at least two others.

The top of the damaged pole, left, has been cut away, and the new pole, right has been installed.

The top of the damaged pole, left, has been cut away, and the new pole, right has been installed.

Power was restored at about 11:45 pm. It’s not clear if the truck driver who damaged the transformer will face any charges or damage claims.

Bomb Threat Called into Mason High School (Update: All Clear)

March 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

By Stephen Siegel
Falls Church Times Staff
March 4, 2016

A bomb threat was called into George Mason High School Friday morning, causing authorities to evacuate the school and investigate with police and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Students and staff were safely moved to the nearby Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School gymnasium within minutes after the threat was called in. Officials say the threat was an automated phone call, and that identical such calls also were sent to several other area high schools, including McLean, Fairfax’s Falls Church High School, Herndon High, Stone Bridge, and Potomac High.

The unlikelihood of all those schools having a bomb made it more likely that the threat was a hoax, but officials couldn’t be sure, so they moved everyone out of the school as a precaution. Mason students were served lunch at Henderson, and they apparently were still at the middle school as this story was being written.

Officials asked parents not to come pick up their children, because the entire campus was closed while police, with the help of Arlington-based K-9 units, investigated. Classes for Henderson students are continuing as scheduled. No threats were called in there.

Afternoon bus service from Jessie Thackrey Preschool, which is not nearby, are being delayed because most of the buses are stuck in the currently-closed lot on the Mason-Henderson campus.

Update, March 4, 5:28 pm: Police issued an all clear at approximately 2:30 pm, and students were released from the Henderson gym back to Mason. Dismissal from the high school was held at the normal time.

Traffic Signal Work to Affect Traffic at 2 Intersections

February 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

February 21, 2016

City traffic signals will be getting upgrades over the next two weeks, and City officials caution that there will be traffic disruptions as a result.

Public Works staff will be replacing the “cabinets” which house the electrical brains for the traffic signals at Park Ave. and N. Washington St. and at Annandale Rd. and W. Broad St. For both locations, work and the resulting traffic impacts are expected to take place during working hours and not at rush hour.

The Park Ave. and N. Washington St. signal will be dark during working hours on February 22 and should be completed within the day. Left turns from Park Ave will be temporarily prohibited and the left turn lane will be closed. Power to the signal will be turned off, so N. Washington St. traffic will be uncontrolled. Park Ave. right turns on to southbound Washington will have a temporary stop sign. The existing cabinet at this intersection has faulty wiring and has overheated in the past.

Work along W. Broad St. is scheduled to begin the week of February 29 and should take three to five days to complete. This signal will be dark for a few hours while a temporary cabinet is installed, and the Annandale Rd. entrance to the Broaddale Center will be closed. Left turns will be prohibited from Annandale Rd. Traffic along W. Broad St. will be uncontrolled, and a temporary stop sign will be installed for Annandale Rd.

The existing cabinet at this intersection was damaged in a car accident a few years ago and the foundation is set too low; this signal currently goes into flash mode during every rain or snow because water seeps into the cabinet. The foundation will be raised before the new cabinet is installed.

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