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 of 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 (about 80 percent of FCPS funding) and the Commonwealth of Virginia (about 20 percent), 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.”
Former delegate for the 44th District and Senator-elect Scott Surovell (D-36) agrees: “Whatever we contribute will be a small portion of what our schools need. That’s the reality of our present situation.”
With the existing formula, the “local composite index,” Surovell said the state is funding its share of public schools at a rate “lower per pupil than what we appropriated in 2007.”
“Virginia is at historical low point in terms of what we cover,” Surovell said.
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 10 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, run 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.”
ALONG THE ROUTE 1 CORRIDOR, car title lenders considered to be “predatory” by forcing individuals to pay interest rates upwards of 200 percent have been a focus of attention of Surovell and received media attention in the latter part of 2015.
“For the last two years, I’ve worked hard to spotlight the problem with predatory lending,” Surovell said. “I think the attention I’ve been able to create has got a lot of other people second-guessing, finally realizing these companies are exploiting loopholes.”
Surovell is leading an effort to restrict, if not ban these businesses outright, along with his successor Delegate-elect Paul Krizek (D-44).
“I do feel like the title lenders are an eyesore,” said Krizek. “Not just about taking advantage of people, but just being there, replacing opportunities for other businesses that we want to have in our community, rather than them.”
MORE FRESH FACES in elected positions include Storck, former School Board member who replaces Gerry Hyland as Mount Vernon District supervisor, and Karen Corbett Sanders, who succeeds Storck on the School Board.
Sanders is optimistic about 2016, highlighting new principals at Bryant Alternative High School, Quander Road School and Walt Whitman Middle School, and a new panel to review candidates for a new principal at Mount Vernon High School.
She’s promoting a “culture of academic success” and “equity in excellence” in the new year, wanting to challenge students with consistent “levels of academic rigor regardless of zip code” and calling for increased collaboration among the community, school system and parents.
In the community in particular, Sanders wants stronger relationships with businesses, such as the one between West Potomac High School and Burke & Herbert Bank, that can provide students with a breadth of internships and different pathways through and beyond their public school education.
AS STORCK SETTLES into his new role, he plans to keep a strong focus on moving forward with developing Bus Rapid Transit and a Metro rail expansion in the Route 1 corridor. “These will show what a sophisticated, integrated mass transit system can do for people, getting to where they want to go in less time,” he said. “All of us, administrators, county staff, state staff, have got to keep it in front of us, make sure we’re not letting any part of this slow the rest of it down.”
Another development opportunity drawing Storck’s attention in 2016 is the North Hill area, a 33-acre parcel north of Dart Drive that the Fairfax County Regional Housing Authority purchased in 1981 and has sat unimproved since then.
Developer CHPPENN I, LLC has submitted a redevelopment proposal for affordable and market-rate housing on the land, while saving a portion for passive use park.
“I think it’s a good starting point,” Storck said. “I have concerns about making sure the balance is right between the park, affordable housing and market-rate housing. We recognize Mount Vernon has always been at the tipping point, the fulcrum of those two housing types.”