When you vote on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Fairfax County voters can vote for our schools by voting to allow a four percent tax on prepared restaurant meals. Of the revenue generated by the tax, 70 percent is required to be dedicated to public schools and 30 percent to other county services, capital improvements and property tax relief.
I support a meals tax because we need to strengthen our schools. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) are suffering from underfunding. While state funds have increased by over 50 percent since the 2009 Great Recession, local funds, which represent 80 percent of our school system’s budget, have risen only 20 percent and lagged investments made in Arlington and Alexandria.
Funding shortfalls have serious consequences, the most significant of which is that FCPS teacher salaries are no longer competitive. A mid-career FCPS teacher makes $20,000 less per year than one in Arlington or Montgomery counties. The FCPS average teacher salary is only $3,000 per year more than Prince William County’s, $2,000 more than Loudoun County’s and $800 more than Prince George’s County’s.
The result is that we are losing top talent and Fairfax County taxpayers are in effect training teachers and staff for the ultimate benefit of other jurisdictions as higher salaries lure them away. FCPS started this year with over 130 teaching vacancies for the first time in the system’s history. Who can blame someone for choosing a 20-plus percent raise to support their family?
In addition, FCPS has a $2 billion capital backlog. School renovations have been deferred. The system has been growing by 120 classrooms of students per year and some students are sitting in trailers instead of well-equipped buildings. In my 13 years as a FCPS student, I saw one trailer. FCPS’ elementary school class sizes are now 35 percent larger than Alexandria’s and 13.7 percent larger than Arlington’s.
Also, FCPS cannot offer the same quality educational experiences of other jurisdictions. All students in five Virginia counties are assigned their own personal computing devices — Henrico, Chesterfield, Albemarle, Alexandria, and Arlington. One-to-one computing for FCPS costs $50 million and for now, is a pipe dream for FCPS.
It has not always been this way. For many years, including when I was a FCPS student from 1976-1989, FCPS was the envy of all school systems in the state, the metro area and the nation. Teachers began and finished their careers in FCPS. Students at West Potomac, Fort Hunt, Groveton, Hayfield or Edison often shared the same teachers over decades.
Why a meals tax referendum? The Constitution of Virginia and our state laws do not allow all counties to enact meals taxes through Boards of Supervisors without prior voter approval. In terms of tax options, state law effectively only allows Virginia counties to tax three things — real estate, personal property (cars) and business revenue (called “BPOL” taxes). Fairfax County’s property tax is actually lower than Prince William and Loudoun counties and is another choice for funding the schools’ shortfall.
However, a four percent meals tax is equal to $0.04 of increased real estate taxes — the equivalent of $200/year on a $500,000 home. A meals tax increase will reduce tax pressure on our elderly on fixed incomes who cannot pay higher real estate taxes. Also, 30 percent of meals taxes are paid by non-county residents.
Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Falls Church and the towns of Vienna, Falls Church, Herndon and Clifton already have a meals tax — we are leaving money on the table. High quality schools help sustain home values for all of us. New families often choose homes based on school data. Strong schools increase demand for homes.
Finally, investing in our children pays massive future dividends. Public secondary and higher education is the bedrock of civilized democracies. The core of high quality education is high quality teachers, people who deserve to be paid as the professionals that they are and at salaries commensurate with their training, experience and importance. Good salaries allow them to live in the community they serve.
Vote yes on the meals tax. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It is an honor to serve as your state senator.