Flexibility Needed

Flexibility Needed

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

I am writing to express my disappointment with Del. Dave Albo's (R-42) platform for reelection, particularly regarding education. At first glance, his proposals sound good — cap the real estate tax at no more than 5 percent per year, lower class sizes by requiring schools to spend at least 65 percent of their budget on classroom teaching and helped build the new South County Secondary School. However, you need to delve deeper for the complete story.

Richmond strictly controls our taxing authority through Dillon's Rule. The only meaningful revenue-raising tool allowed localities is the real-estate tax, from which well over half of Fairfax County's entire budget is derived, and virtually all is spent to fund education. Mandating a 5 percent annual cap would impose yet another limitation on local government's funding ability. Heaping restrictions is not the answer to our budget quandary. We need to diversify better our tax base and thereby reduce our reliance on property owners, who currently shoulder an inordinate burden. Give us flexibility by granting more options. Del. Albo's time would be better spent with constructive endeavors, for example, allowing counties and cities similar taxing authority the same taxing authority as cities, and compelling Richmond to fulfill its legal obligation to fund fully existing state-issued mandates, like the educational standards of quality.

It seems Del. Albo is an advocate of the so-called "65 percent solution," which is a national goal recently being pursued by the organization First Class Education, headed by Patrick Byrne, chairman of Overstock.com. Specifically, it would mandate "each school district in a state to spend at least 65 percent of its operating budget on classroom instruction as defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics." Currently only two states meet this benchmark. Most states fall near the national average of 61.3 percent; Virginia is at 61.5 percent. As Del. Albo admits, frustrating comparisons is the difference in accounting practices among school districts, and figures don't necessarily comport with NCES categories. A NCES-published report acknowledges this difficulty.

Del. Albo characterizes a 3.5 percent shifting of the budget as "modest," but if you use Fairfax County as an example, it translates to about $66.5 million annually, more than enough to build today the new south-county middle school. School districts large, small, urban or rural, it's one size fits all, which raises many questions. Why 65 percent, is it an arbitrary number, why not 70 percent or 75 percent? And what would be sacrificed to meet this benchmark? Counselors and librarians do not satisfy the NCES "instructional" definition and therefore could be cut. The shifted funds then could be spent, for example, toward A/V equipment or the football team. Contrary to Del. Albo's assertion "This would lower class sizes to an average of 21:1," there's no requirement the targeted money be spent on additional teachers, or to increase their salaries. In fact, there are no spending requirements other than the expenditures must meet the NCES definition.

What is this 65 percent proposal trying to fix? Fairfax County has one of the highest rated school districts in the nation. Of course, we're certainly not perfect, so why not focus on those areas that need improvement, instead of applying an across-the-board mandate? And who better to determine those areas than our local School Board. With this proposal, the state attempts to get credit for ostensibly improving education by purportedly moving more money into the classroom, but none of the blame for the resulting budget cuts. There's an underlying theme here, which is the erosion of local government's decision-making powers.

At best, Del. Albo's portrayal of how SCSS was built is misleading. The South County Secondary School (SCSS) was built using a public-private partnership which, as Del. Albo readily acknowledges, was the idea of two south-county parents. While there was an "Albo-Rust Public/Private School Construction Plan" unveiled in 2001, Senate Bill 681, the "Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002 (PPEA)," was modeled on the Public-Private Transportation Act of 1995 (PPTA). PPEA's enactment was the result of ongoing legislative efforts to extend the availability of financing mechanisms authorized under PPTA to schools and a large array of other non-transportation infrastructure. The chief patrons of PPEA were Sen. Stosch and Del. Bryant. Del. Albo was only one of 60 House co-patrons to the bill, in addition to 24 in the Senate.

Ironically, PPEA was not used for financing SCSS. The public-private partnership for SCSS was developed using the long-standing Virginia Public Procurement Act (VPPA). Public-private partnerships now can be implemented using either mechanism; the PPEA merely offers an alternative. Although, VPPA is limited to solicited bids like the one for SCSS, whereas PPEA also encompasses unsolicited ones. David Hallock, then deputy counselor to the governor, warned "Remember at all times that the PPEA, while a very useful tool in specific circumstances, is still just another procurement method."

Along with committed community leaders, it was local and federal officials — the Fairfax County School Board, Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, and U.S. Reps. Tom Davis (R-11) and Jim Moran (D-8) — that made the SCSS public-private financing scheme possible. No state official played a substantive role.

Too many of our elected representatives in Richmond fail to give sincere and thoughtful consideration to what truly would help improve Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Del. Albo has spent 12 years in Richmond, and I believe it's time for a change. That's why I'm voting for Greg Werkheiser (D).

Elaine Auby O'Hora

Fairfax Station