OPINION: Sharing the Budget Pie

Falls Church Times Staff

February 22, 2010

For the last 10 years, the schools’ part of the budget pie has hovered around 40%, give or take a percent or two (if you include debt service, the piece of pie grows to 44-48%).  With the projected budget shortfall at $9 million, to keep the schools at 40% of the pie would mean a $3.6 million reduction in the school budget.  What will that mean to Falls Church City Schools?

With no target budget given to the schools by City Hall this year, Dr. Lois Berlin, at the request of the School Board, outlined four tiers of budget cuts at the beginning of the budget process.  Her four budget reductions ranged from 1.8% (accounting for all the federal and state budget cuts) to 8.6% (accounting for the almost $9 million budget shortfall experienced by the city).  The Tier 4 reductions came close, but only equal $3.1 million, and the public outcry against such draconian measures included at this tier such as moving to half-day kindergarten; eliminating elementary-level art, music, and foreign language; and increasing class size by as many as five students has indicated the improbability of that scenario.

Let’s face it.  The economy is not going to rebound in one year.  Unless something drastic happens, we’ll be facing, at the very least, a flat budget for FY2012.  Can the schools withstand these cuts this year, and then even identify new budget cuts for a second year?

Most people engaged in the current budget debate seem to agree that strong schools add value to our Little City (except for those who feel the City School System is doomed, doomed, doomed and we should sell out – quick – to our friendly neighbors).  The debate should now be how much more of the pie we give the schools to maintain the quality of the education for our children and retain the staff the school system has worked hard over the last few years to recruit.

The City budget work sessions have been structured to identify citizens’ priorities.  But groups at recent meetings have been given a list of 68 “lines of service” to prioritize.  By focusing on such a large number of options, it’s easy to focus on pet projects and harder to identify the core functions of the Little City that citizens value most.

With such a dramatic budget reduction, hard choices will be need to be made.  The questions we should be asking are:  Where can we let things slide a year or two?  What are luxuries and what are necessities?  Where can cuts be made, and where do we have to meet legal or moral obligations?  By looking at the major themes, it may make it a little easier to identify those areas:

  1. Community Outreach
  2. Development
  3. Education
  4. Environmental
  5. Human and Community Services
  6. Library
  7. Public Safety
  8. Recreation and Parks
  9. Transportation

And then we should ask the experts – the city staff who run these programs. Acknowledging that all decisions are difficult, where could there be cuts and how would those cuts realistically affect your program?  How easy would it be to rebound after suffering those cuts?  What would be your four tiers for reductions?

As Dr. Berlin constructed her four tiers of budget scenarios, she worked closely with the school administrators and staff to identify cuts and how those reductions would affect the education given to the city students, the staff, the infrastructure of the school system, etc.  The process was a painful one for staff and administrators alike.  Departments were pitted against department; staff continue to feel vulnerable and that many of these budget reductions rest on their backs.

Last week, School Board Chair Ron Peppe stated, “We want to keep any budget reductions as far removed from the classroom as possible,” and indicated that the School Board budget request to the City Manager would be in the neighborhood of a $1.1 million reduction.  Those cuts fall within the Tier 2 range, and the principals’ assessments on how those cuts will affect their schools are available online on the Falls Church City Schools budget page (http://www.fccps.org/board/budget/fy11/index.html).

I can only assume that the City Manager is going through the same process with his staff as he formulates the City’s FY2011 budget scheduled to be released on March 8th.  Clearly a tax increase is in the Little City’s future.  The question now is how large and where will the increased revenue be spent?  Citizens will be more supportive if they know what the funds will be used for, and how City Hall and the School Board arrived at those priorities.  I am hopeful that the city budget presentation will be as transparent as the school budget debate has been.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The schedule for the rest of the budget discussion is:

Tuesday, February 23 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

6:30 p.m.         School Board Work Session
8:00 p.m.         Public Hearing #3 on School Board Budget

Tuesday, March 2 | Conference Room, Central Office [800 West Broad Street, Suite 203]

7:00 p.m.         School Board Work Session and Adoption of FY2011 School Budget

Monday, March 8 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.         City Manager presents FY11 Operating Budget and FY11-15 Capital Improvements Program

Thursday, March 11 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.         Joint City Council/School Board/ Planning Commission Work Session
Report on Financial Condition

Monday, March 15 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.       WORK SESSION
Public Safety:  Police, Sheriff, Fire
Administrative: Executive, Council, COR, Treasurer, Registrar

Thursday, March 18 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.        WORK SESSION
Community Services: Recreation and Parks, Library, Housing and Human Services, Court Services
City-owned Property Report Follow Up with School Board and Planning Commission

Saturday, March 20 | Community Center [223 Little Falls Street]

Time TBA         Town Hall Meeting:  General Government and Schools

Monday, March 22 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.         First Public Hearing, First Reading of Budget Ordinance

Thursday, March 25 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.         WORK SESSION
Schools Division
Development Services:  Planning, Zoning, Urban Forestry

Monday, March 29 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 P.M.       Joint Council, School Board, Planning Commission Work Session
CIP and Utility Budgets

Thursday, April 1 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.        WORK SESSION
Environmental Services: Engineering, Operations

Monday, April 5 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.       WORK SESSION
School Division

Thursday, April 8 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.        WORK SESSION
Council to provide City Manager direction on how to move forward on budget

Saturday, April 10 | Community Center {223 Little Falls Street]

Time TBA         Town Hall Meeting:  Primarily General Government

Monday, April 12 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.         Second Public Hearing

Thursday, April 15 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.        WORK SESSION as needed

Monday, April 19 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.       WORK SESSION
FY2011 Budget Final Review

Monday, April 26 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

7:30 p.m.       Third Public Hearing
Adoption of FY11 Operating Budget and CIP
In the event that City Council defers action on CIP, it will be considered May 3

Tuesday April 27 | Council Chambers, City Hall [300 Park Avenue]

TBA               School Board votes on FY2011 School Appropriation* from City
* also referred to as the School Budget Amendment or School Fund Transfer

For an updated calendar of budget hearings and work sessions, click here.

UPDATE, February 24

In answer to Ms. Nebeker’s comment below, I went back to the School Board’s budget page, and on page 17 of the document with School Board Questions and Staff Answers, found the following table:


City Total General Fund Budget

Transfer to Schools (with Debt Service)


Transfer to Schools (without Debt Service)


FY1999 $32,070,464 $14,246,683 44.4% $12,545,474 39.1%
FY2000 $35,388,768 $15,581,766 44.0% $13,761,781 38.9%
FY2001 $37,517,267 $17,466,409 46.6% $15,688,143 41.8%
FY2002 $41,043,931 $19,791,317  48.2% $18,209,736 44.4%
FY2003 $45,722,529 $21,336,313 46.7% $19,430,187 42.5%
FY2004 $48,543,560 $22,984,625 47.3% $21,159,675 43.6%
FY2005 $55,444,555 $25,386,456 45.8% $22,781,478 41.1%
FY2006 $62,088,445 $28,580,808 46.0% $25,107,302 40.4%
FY2007  $67,036,258 $31,092,714 46.4% $27,652,094 41.2%
FY2008 $70,790,648 $32,488,105 45.9% $29,076,300 41.1%
FY2009 $76,621,966 $33,482,664 43.7% $30,117,600 39.3%
FY2010 $72,585,677 $32,623,641 44.9% $29,324,825 40.4%

To find out more information about the budget history and proposed cuts to the school budget, visit fccps.org and click on FY11 Budget.

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By Annette Hennessey
February 22, 2010 


3 Responses to “OPINION: Sharing the Budget Pie”

  1. Kathleen Nebeker, City of Falls Church on February 23rd, 2010 10:00 am


    Do you have the annual data for the last ten years? If so, would you mind posting it?

    Also, what is the typical class size in the schools? Has it remained constant over the last decade?

    Thanks for writing this article.

  2. Annette Hennessey, Falls Church Times on February 24th, 2010 11:28 pm


    I’ve included the table I used above. I will also confirm numbers of students in classes with the school office.

  3. J. Bowman, City of Falls Church on February 25th, 2010 11:21 am

    I also have some questions… and I do support quality education.
    My questions:

    1. what is the % of families in the City who have children in our schools? Has this % changed over the past years and why ?

    2. It was mentioned at one of the forums that it is estimated that it cost the City about $19,000 per child per year. Is this typical in surrounding communities?

    3. When a student qualifies for the Science & Tech magnet school, does the family, or the City, pay the annual $12,000 additional tuition? How many are in the program now?

    4. I have read about the advanced / IB programs in our High School. Are these at risk ? Do the students earn college credit for the classes?

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