MAN ABOUT TOWN: The Elephant in Council Chambers

Falls Church Times Columnist

October 11, 2010

Caught on tape at last week’s City Council work session:

Ms. Gardner: One of the elephants in the room is that we’ve gone to the Justice Department, and they’ve approved [the election date change], and if we retract [it], I think the Justice Department will have an issue with that.

Ms. Barry: It wasn’t an elephant in the room, because an elephant in the room is something you don’t discuss, and we’ve already discussed going back and forth to the Department of Justice.

I submit that both the gentle ladies are wrong. There most certainly was an elephant in the room – it’s there yet – but it has nothing to do with the Justice Department.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the “elephant in the room” first appeared in the New York Times on June 20, 1959: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

Wow. Thank you, NYT, for seeing 50 years into the future and coining the perfect idiom for our City Council. And what irony – of all the elephants in all the rooms in all the world, the original school finance elephant walks into ours.

How big is this elephant? Here are its dimensions by way of Falls Church City Schools statistics and forecasts:

Total student capacity (all schools):           2,330
Total students as of Sept. 30, 2010:          2,052
Room  to grow:                                                  278

The school administration projected an increase this year of 41 students. They missed it by half – the actual increase is 61. Next year they’re projecting another 81 students. So those 278 spaces are going fast.

But it’s worse than that. You can’t split students equitably between buildings – some are going to be over capacity and others under. Mount Daniel Elementary has 39 extra spaces, TJ Elementary 40, ME Henderson Middle 122, and Mason High 55.

To illustrate how fast a school can grow, the past five years have seen a 61-pupil increase at Mt. Daniel.

The elephant is hungry. It wants a new school building, but there’s no money to build it. We just built a new school five years ago, and don’t even have the debt capacity to borrow money for another one.

This year, the City Schools performed a miracle first done with loaves and fishes: Despite the 50 percent higher growth than expected, no additional personnel were hired. That’s a good trick, but can it be repeated? Can you keep an elephant under your hat?

City Manager Wyatt Shields has done a great job keeping the elephant at bay. He exudes a calm, competent confidence such that you don’t even smell the elephant, much less see it. So it’s not surprising that Shields doesn’t seem to care too much for the volunteer experts known as the Long Range Financial Planning Working Group. Led by Richard Sommerfeld, the LRFPWG regularly cries elephant. Sommerfeld, unfettered by concerns of job security or elected position, has been especially outspoken, and recently wrote in the Falls Church News-Press:

“City revenues, after just one month of the current fiscal year, are running $191,801 behind budget. Behind the $161,449 decline in expenditures are several staff vacancies, including a missing CFO for the City as our external auditor commences the FY10 audit. Despite the previous Council exhausting $15 million of fund balances over a three-year period, tough expense cutting decisions this year, and delivering the largest real estate tax increase in anybody’s memory (and the largest in the entire metro area), the fragility of The Little City’s financial health should be front and center with the City staff, Council, and the FCNP.”

And he didn’t even mention the schools.

Returning from an African safari, Groucho Marx  said, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

If Groucho were still around he could shoot the elephant. Otherwise, how we’ll get it out of Council chambers I’ll never know.

  • PrintFriendly
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo Mail
  • Delicious
  • AIM
  • Share/Bookmark

By George Southern
October 11, 2010 


6 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: The Elephant in Council Chambers”

  1. Andy Rankin (Falls Church) on October 11th, 2010 8:55 am

    George, what’s your point? Seriously, are you making any suggestions here or do you assume we all know your suggestion (merge with Arlington)?

    Seems to me that this elephant may be something being discussed in the closed door sessions. The schools have been working for a while on facility planning. So it’s not like this issue is being ignored.

    It doesn’t seem like there’s an easy solution (there rarely are easy solutions) but I’m pretty sure we’ll sove this problem one way or another (and none of those ways will be merging with Arlington or Fairfax).

  2. Mike Smith on October 11th, 2010 12:30 pm


    I’m trying to figure out where you are going with this. Are you saying that the City Manager is exhibiting all the cool competence of the Captain of the Titanic rearranging the deck chairs? That’s always been his management style, the fact that he ignores the advice of a volunteer panel of experts is a “dog bites man” story.

    If you are saying the School budget is poised to grow, well “another dog bites another man.”

  3. Gordon Theisz, City of Falls Church on October 11th, 2010 2:33 pm

    George, I think everyone knows that the schools are growing fast and that the City needs a larger building, but it is not like Council can wave a wand and fix the problem. The solution needs to come from diligent work and, hopefully, a little luck financially with commercial development and recovery in the real estate market. The appropriate question to ask is not about where the elephant is in the room, but more importantly, where did he come from? In other words, where are these kids coming from? Is it residential infill, sales of existing homes to young families, occupation of condominiums as rentals with families, a combination? How does one address the growth issue? How do we overcome the differential of tax revenue received from rental properties vs. cost of providing services, especially education? We are the victim of our own success. Folks in the foreign service know this is the place to be for their kids, and now we have more rental units for them to occupy (not that this is a bad thing, it is just a fact). Real estate agents know this and market “Falls Church City schools” in every ad. Properties sell for more inside the City than out. We built a great school system and now everyone wants to come here. Now, how do we get the revenue to support them?

  4. Steven Valley on October 12th, 2010 6:28 am

    Oh oh oh wait wait… I know what he’s saying!

    This is perfect! Here’s what you do… w a a a a i t f or i t…

    Sell the property next to the West Falls Church Metro, you know the one? That will fetch a pretty penny, then use that money to build an even bigger school on another piece of property that city doesn’t have.


    BTW…. if we’re waiting for the CRE market to recover? And that’s the same CRE market that loathes Falls Church. It’s going to be a looooooooooong wait before a recover happens there and before it recovers it has to crash, that would be the second crash that everyone is expecting. And, if you’re waiting for property values to come back to pre-bubble prices for taxes to take up the slack in the city budget, you can expect to wait another 15 years. On the bright side? For all of us it will be a moot issue by that time.

  5. Manny Little on October 12th, 2010 9:39 am

    Is there any current students who do not live in the “city”?

  6. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on October 12th, 2010 10:46 am

    Interesting fixation with elephants. The donkeys demand equal time … the political kind, that is!

    George, it is certainly true that those numbers are meaningful, but you are failing to credit the tremendous amount of long-term planning that has already resulted in the addition to MD and the construction of MEH. Given the ultra-low interest rates and current programs to assist localities with capex, even ignoring the huge assets owned by the City, I would suggest that any analysis suggesting we lack the capacity to finance the needed school facilities is just dead wrong. We can all plug numbers into a spreadsheet, but [unless the elephants take over] this City will support any school bond issue that comes forward, unless we decide to sacrifice our schools on the altar of “financial health.” Gordon is right, all of this information needs to inform policies that will mitigate the issues found, and as long as we can summon the political will the projections will change dramatically.

    On school capacity, we are already over what was billed as capacity several years ago, with the new capacity representing an increase in the number of students per classroom. My 8th grader and my 5th grader were in MD classes of 16 kids in 02-06, while my 1st grader is in a class with 20 (last year’s K class was 21). I do not know if this is good or bad, but my opinion is that the post-9/11 baby boom is subsiding, and in 10-15 more years we will be wondering where all the kids have gone.

Feel free to leave a comment. Please increase the credibility of your post by including your FULL NAME and CITY. All comments are subject to editing for courtesy and content.

Subscribe without commenting