MAN ABOUT TOWN: Fighting for the Schools

Falls Church Times Columnist

December 6, 2010

As foreseen, “the fight for the schools” has intensified, including skirmishes on the electronic pages of the Falls Church Times. So far the words remain largely civil, but civil words can nevertheless lead to civil wars. And the fight for the schools threatens to become a civil war – a fight, not against outside forces, but of neighbor against neighbor.

“Fighting for the schools” is a proud tradition in Falls Church, as documented by the late A.C. Miller, who wrote a short history of the CBC (Citizens for a Better City) for the Falls Church Times in April 2009. Miller compared the CBC to a PTA, “not Republican or Democratic, but a non-partisan, or perhaps multi-partisan organization of parents fighting for the best schools.”

Current CBC President Sally Ekfelt blew the same trumpet in a comment to the FCT last week: “We think independence is worth fighting for.”

Also last week, City Patriarch Lou Olom wrote a letter to the FCT, urging City taxpayers to continue to lend adequate financial support to the schools. That letter, and the 29 comments it generated, was the most-read item of the week – nearly 1,300 views so far. And it inspired another seasoned observer, Ed Strait, to write that Olom was “a leading fighter for the high-quality public school system in Falls Church today,” the main CBC activist who “fought that fight in 1959.”

But whom are these proud fighters fighting against? Then-Mayor Robin Gardner stated in April 2009 that “the School Board’s job is to do whatever they can to fight for their school staff. Our [City Council’s] job is to fight as hard as we can for our City staff.”

And there lies the crux of the matter: the “fight” for the schools is, and always has been, over money, and who gets it. The City broke away from Fairfax County in 1948 because town parents wanted a better education for their children than the then-hayseed county schools were providing. And the townies were willing to pay for it.

Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences has caught up with the City of Falls Church. “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” The better mousetrap is the City school system, often likened to private schools: small, well-bred, and exclusive, requiring an expensive ticket for admission — the price of Falls Church real estate – and only the privileged need apply. Evidence is the percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunch: 32 percent in Arlington, 26 percent in Fairfax County, and 8 percent in Falls Church City.

The Man About Town broached this subject nine months ago in a much-maligned  commentary that unleashed a firestorm of response, the most scathing coming from David Chavern, who accused me of suggesting that the City Schools’ popularity is a form of “white flight.” Well, this time I won’t try to reason why our schools are in demand, and ask instead how and if we can meet that demand.

FACT: Smaller school systems are more expensive per student than larger school systems. Arlington has 10 times our students; Fairfax 100 times.

FACT: Unfunded mandates would bankrupt any school system without state and federal aid. But wealthy Falls Church receives only a fraction of the outside support flowing to other small jurisdictions. The next-smallest area school system after Falls Church is Manassas City, with 3 ½ times as many students. But 49 percent of Manassas school costs come from state and federal funding. In the Little City, that figure is 21 percent.

FACT: For the past two years, City funding of schools has declined, even while student enrollments increase 2-3 percent per year.

The battle lines are drawn. On January 11 we’ll hear Superintendent Lois Berlin’s proposed school budget for next year. Will she make further cuts to last year’s draconian budget?

Whether parents or not, we all have a dog in this fight. But is it a fight that can be won? I don’t see how. The more we fund the schools, the more exclusive, and therefore desirable, they become, thus heightening demand. Expensive schools beget even more expensive schools.

And the alternative? Will our children still study Yeats?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. . .

December 6, 2010 


6 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Fighting for the Schools”

  1. Chris Roberson on December 6th, 2010 8:10 am

    Again another article with more observations and complaints, BUT no solutions or suggestions. Go to Starbucks and gripe to the person sitting next to you verses taking up this space

  2. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 6th, 2010 8:20 am

    Chris, I’m guessing (just a guess) that George assumes we all know his solution: merge the City with Arlington County.

    Anyway, to answer George’s question: yes, I think we can meet the demand. How? By increasing the commercial tax base in the City we will generate more tax revenue without burdening the citizens and that additional revenue will help pay for school costs – even as demand grows (i.e. we expand the capacity of the schools).

    From what I’ve read ,the City has often struggled over the costs of the schools but it’s been around for 50 years and I don’t see why it’s a forgone conclusion that the City won’t be able to survive now.

  3. Michael Baker, Falls Church on December 6th, 2010 9:17 am

    George touches on the underlying reason why Falls Church schools can still provide what they do – it is the fact we are small. While the schools are certainly racially and culturally diverse, socio-economically we have avoided the great swing between the truly needy and the very wealthy that jurisdictions such as Alexandria and Manassas must deal with. While some have expressed legitimate concerns with the state of Special Ed in Falls Church, overall the system is able to devote most of its strained resources to the education our children receive. The schools don’t have the real issues of gangs, poverty, and drug use that other districts have.
    To merge with another district, such as Arlington, would put our students at risk, both of their education, their future education, and even their well being. If George Mason High School became just another Northern Virginia High School, what would help our children get into the schools they work so hard to be accepted by. What would happen to the IB program that gives them a diverse education to fill in the gaps the state mandated SOL’s have caused in their education.
    The answer to the questions of cost are not simple – I don’t like higher taxes and wished more businesses would locate in the City – but not for give-aways.
    Our City Council has, for over 20 years, gone from one pipe dream to another that was always hailed as the City savior, but there never seems to be a solid, realistic plan for growth and renewal. Maybe a more realistic look at what we can offer is required.
    I have half-seriously said that maybe the Council should become voluntary – no stipends or salaries until the fiscal crisis is resolved. But maybe that would show who the real supporters of Falls Church are. We have a City Manager and staff to run the City.
    But the costs we are paying for education today is our repayment for what we have already received. We should not be trying to cut back on our obligations to the current and future generations of students. We owe it to them for what opportunities we enjoyed.

  4. Steve Randolph, Manassas on December 6th, 2010 10:18 am

    The City of Manassas PARK school system, not “Manassas”, is next in size to that of Falls Church. One reason MP and nearby
    Manassas get more fed/state support per student is because their free/reduced lunch and ESL percentages dwarf those of Falls Church.

    GEORGE SOUTHERN RESPONDS: Point taken. I didn’t mention Manassas Park because it’s not a member of the Washington Area Boards of Education, which provides the document I used for the statistics. Falls Church City Schools have 2,056 students, Manassas Park has 2,957, and Manassas City has 7,025.

  5. Greg Rasnake, Falls Church on December 7th, 2010 7:02 am

    I have mentioned this several times and invite George to do a little research to either confirm or deny my understanding of the law. It is my understanding that Falls Church City can NOT “merge” with Arlington County. Arlington County is prohibited from annexing any land by their Charter. Also – I believe there is a statue that requires the City to return to the County from which we formed; Fairfax County. I consistently see dialogue on this forum about “marrying” our future to our big cousin Arlington. But unless my understanding of the law is incorrect – that is not possible. Any “merger” will have to be with our bigger cousin Fairfax County. So if you have visions of a 5 minute drive down Wilson Blvd to Arlington County to pay get your city sticker; you had better make plans to join your Million-ish fellow residents of Fairfax County and plan for a longer drive. Parents had also prepare themselves for the annual battle over where your children will go to school; redistricting is a constant issue in Fairfax. Oh, and get yourselves on the Fairfax County waitlist for Before and After School childcare. It was only about 1 or 2 years at most schools when my wife and I contemplated living in Vienna (where taxes are higher) or McLean.

  6. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on December 7th, 2010 8:49 am

    Greg, I don’t harp on the Fairfax County vs. Arlington County issue because I don’t think either is a good idea – an neither appeals to me. It is a valid point though, since my understanding of George’s solution to the problem (if the problem = Falls Church losing its village feel) is to merge with Arlington County.

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