Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Last Night’s School Board Meeting, and Some Thoughts about the Path Forward

Last evening I attended the June 16 School Board meeting and work session – well, part of it anyway.  The first part was on “technology” and was closed because the Virginia open meetings statute allows non-public government meetings when, for example, discussing specific cybersecurity threat and vulnerability issues.  There was a long, closed discussion, but for details, if any, we will need to wait until the official minutes are released.  As many of you know, this is an issue I am passionate about.

Much of the rest of meeting, which ran from 7 till past 10 pm, was about the interlocking issues of development in Falls Church City, its effect on school enrollment and taxes, and the planned commercial and school development around the current George Mason High School campus.  This is a classic “hairball,” issue, with many intertwined strands that are difficult to unwind, understand and resolve.  These include the positive potential for a new high school funded by commercial development that limits tax consequences for city residents, and the negative risks of accelerating growth in the student population, aging and inadequate school facilities, higher taxes, and political deadlock.

I won’t recap the full discussion, nor the prior Visioning session held at Mary Ellen Henderson to discuss the ideas for development of the new high school campus and the surrounding area.  If you want to catch up quickly, this presentation by the League of Women Voters provides a great explanation of the proposals for high school campus development from the League’s own prior Visioning session.  More documents are here if you are a glutton for policy:  And there are also resources available on the effect of development on school population – please feel free to post the ones you have found the most helpful.  The Economic Development Authority has a detailed model it uses to advise the City Council on the fiscal effects of new development projects.

The discussion is complex for a number of reasons, including because: development both raises revenue in taxes and imposes costs for services and schools; different types of development have different value in the market – for example, if development that includes housing has a higher value, it might provide more funds for building a school, even though pure commercial development would not raise school enrollment; school buildings can only hold so many students, and exceeding that number means trailers, crowded classes, or an entirely new building; and Falls Church City taxes are already higher than some surrounding jurisdictions. 

Because I am running for the School Board, let me offer a few of my own views on the path forward.
  • First, I hope we can agree that Falls Church City needs to maintain superb public schools.  Our schools have been and remain one of the key parts of our community.   They also support the property values that help make Falls Church a desirable place to live and which support city services. 
  • Second, cost is a concern.  The tax rate has limits both for people and businesses, and excessive taxes will drive a cycle that encourages businesses, families, and individuals to leave.   We need both great schools and efficient schools, and intelligent decisions about development.
  • Third, we have to recognize that Falls Church City is at a crossroads, and decisions will be made in the next few years that will determine its character for the next half-century.  There will be differences, and strongly-held ones.  But we need a civil discussion, including because in the big scheme of things we are very few, and each of us will go to meetings, attend services, and dine with the other for long time.  I have kids in the school system, but Carole and I lived here before they were born, and we plan to live here after they leave for their own homes.  We love the community, which would not be the same without the schools.

For me, as I say above, the schools need to be SUPERB.  Making sure we can do that, while maintaining and enhancing our community for all its members, is a critical task for both the School Board and the City Council.

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