With winter vacation, unseasonably warm weather and 2015 in their rearview mirrors, community leaders and elected officials from the Fairfax County School Board, Board of Supervisors, General Assembly turn their attention to some of the most significant issues, developments or decisions in 2016:
FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOLS face a well-advertised projected budget shortfall of $70 million for Fiscal Year 2017. Superintendent Dr. Karen Garza’s Jan. 7 presentation of her proposed 2017 budget at West Potomac High School and again to the School Board that evening should be a culmination community input, a dedicated task force and her individual vision for moving the school system forward.
One of the challenges facing the schools is a rapidly growing student population of over 187,000, 52,000 of which are financially eligible for free and reduced meals. Supporting that growth falls primarily to the Board of Supervisors and the Commonwealth of Virginia, which uses a funding formula that determines wealth based on income and property values to determine how state money is allocated around the Commonwealth.
“Eighty percent of people in the General Assembly benefit from existing funding formula,” said Del. Dave Albo (R-42). “It’s hard to get it changed, and because of these formulas, it’s not very smart to ask the state to pay more money without changing the formula.”
Instead, Albo suggests looking for more local financing and grants aimed at assisting some of the school’s services for students with mental health disorders or financial challenges.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently announced a proposed $1 billion for education alone as part of his overall proposed budget.
“The Governor has been thinking outside the box as to ways to assist,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41). “We as legislators have to continue to do the same: What can we do with the money we have, the formula we have? Is there a chance for changing any of the formulas? How do we find more money?”
With the upcoming presidential election, Springfield District School Board member Elizabeth Schultz isn’t optimistic for as much collaboration at the General Assembly. “I see political entrenchment gumming up the work within the state,” she said. As the biggest burden for funding falls to the Supervisors, Schultz said she is “very worried for the taxpayers: this is going to somehow justify some major increase in property taxes.”
But solving the shortfall at the county level may be bigger than a tax increase.
Braddock District School Board member Megan McLaughlin said it’s important to remember the $70 million shortfall is the difference in simply maintaining the current operating and compensation costs for the school system.
“We will continue to have a student population that increases in size and need,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve got to find a long-term workable solution with the Board of Supervisors to help really find the common ground, what it takes to fund the school system that has the reputation FCPS has so appropriately earned.”
McLaughlin believes taking a “more shared approach with the Supervisors on how we handle annual employee raises, increased costs to health care benefits and pension benefits” is a good place to start.
“Those are the three biggest cost drivers that FCPS faces every year,” she said. “All the rest we end up cutting around the margins, on the other ten percent, things make us a remarkable school system like robust fine arts, foreign languages, having healthier start times. Those costs are very real.”
With Supervisors Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon) and Kathy Smith (D-Sully) having just left their respective positions on the School Board, Schultz foresees a “real dynamic shift” on the Fairfax County Board.
THE FAIRFAX COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT said they have already begun implementing some of the 142 recommendations for improvement made by the 37-member Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which met between March and October in 2015.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova formed the commission following public demonstrations and media pressure over the release of information surrounding the 2013 fatal shooting of Springfield resident John Geer by then-Fairfax County Police officer Adam Torres.
“I think most of us believe that while we have an excellent police department, we want it to be better,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock). “Times are changing, there are needs that are pointed out in the report of the commission that need to be implemented.”
Two of the more controversial recommendations from the commission include creating a civilian review panel that would discuss complaints against the police and report to the Supervisors, as well as implementing body cameras to record officer interactions with citizens.
On establishing the review panel, Cook said, “I hope we do, I think we will. But we have to decide what it looks like. The board ultimately has to make that decision after talking to officers and community members.”
For Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), “the devil is in the details” with the panel, which he said would not have had a say in the Geer case, if implemented as the Commission recommended. “There is clear need for the county to be more transparent,” Herrity added, “ in police incidents of all types, it’s a public trust issue.”
On body cameras, Herrity is hesitantly supportive, voicing concerns about protecting the privacy of officers and the citizens with whom they interact. Supervisor Jeff McKay is similarly reserved, calling for a more detailed discussion of how they would be implemented.
“I think the majority of our police officers do a good job and want the public to see the job they’re doing,” McKay said. “The challenge becomes how you handle Freedom of Information Act request, ruin ongoing investigations and train officers on what they need to be recording and not recording.”
Newly sworn-in Supervisor Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon) is generally in favor of the recommendations of the Commission, but expects to spend time during 2016 and beyond with other Board members more substantially reviewing them. “Transparency to me is the core of that,” Storck said. “I’ve led those charges on the School Board in terms of how we do discipline and meetings -- they’re all open and recorded, essential things we need to do here as well.”
NICK FIRTH OF LORTON recently completed his two-year term as President of the South County Federation, a civic association, to assume his role as the group’s Vice President. Firth said the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse area, where the former Lorton Prison grounds are in the beginning stages of being transformed into a residential and retail center that is greatly needed in the community.
“We’re missing a town center,” Firth said. “Reston’s got one, and Kingstowne.” Firth is optimistic for commercial entities coming in as part of the new and adapted facilities that will be part of the Liberty Crest redevelopment project.
The South County Federation has also passed a resolution in support of a new police station and animal shelter coming to the Lorton area in the future -- both items were part of the bond issue in the November 2015 election.
“Any time you have a community and think of what defines it, I would say things like rec centers, police stations, libraries and fire stations,” Firth said. “If you don’t have one, it makes people feel like everyone else has a police station -- that’s something that’s a significant step forward for Lorton.”
“Our population continues to increase,” Firth continued, “it’s still the fastest in the county. These things have been lagging behind. It seems like Lorton’s got a really great future ahead of it.”