Mount Vernon Letter: Food for Thought

Mount Vernon Letter: Food for Thought

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

The meals tax has come forward at this time as a possible way of providing much-needed income to the schools. Broadly speaking, the schools have cut budget for 10 years and held teacher salaries flat through most of that period. (I believe 2016 is the one exception to that trend thanks to the leadership of Karen Garza.) Now Fairfax County schools have larger class sizes and lower paid teachers than surrounding systems.

We have to recognize that these trends bode ill for the long-term quality of our schools and our neighborhoods. Any argument about taxes in Fairfax County has to address the school issue and the much needed public discussion about the kind of county we want to build together for the future.

One of the main reasons my wife and I moved here with three young children 13 years ago was because of the record of Fairfax County schools. After 13 years here, I reject the claim that the schools or the county are mismanaged or ineffective. I have deep respect for the quality of our elected and non-elected county employees many of whom I have worked with throughout the past 13 years. Having a master’s degree in education, more than 10 years experience teaching in elite private schools, and having sent three children through Fort Hunt, Carl Sandburg, and West Potomac, I have the highest regard for the caliber of teacher and administrator at every level of our school system.

I believe you will find consensus that quality schools require investment in teachers and in teaching as a career. Compensation has to be at a level designed to secure high quality people who want to make a career of teaching, not teach as a way station to a more lucrative calling. Enough quality teachers have to be employed to keep class sizes manageable if not ideal for learning. Right now both goals are slipping away from Fairfax County because the budget has not capacity for paying more teachers well.

As little as I like taxes I prefer this tax to what I imagine will take place when our schools reflect continued long-term lack of investment in teaching. Over time, people with children who can afford to move will choose to live somewhere else in the metro region. That doesn’t mean our area has to decline. I can imagine a business model built around attracting wealthy people without children, and tourists, and the higher end services they want. I can imagine other futures. But the future I prefer has more to do with the Fairfax County I have come to know and love — a service-oriented county filled with people who care about helping people of all sorts and conditions at every stage of life fulfill their promise and find health in community. At the center of realizing that vision is a big investment in public schools that serve everyone well.

As we look to replace the wonderful Karen Garza with an equally committed and talented leader we would do well to realize we are at kind of a watershed moment. The School Board has a strong case to make if in November we provide the new superintendent with some short-term income for paying teachers. If we vote against the tax without providing a viable alternative, we are weakening their hand. That isn’t to say that our great institutions depend upon great leaders to make them work. But when leaders know there is waning support for one future, they reasonably make plans for another. Our vote will say something about the future we want for our county and that will in turn determine the quality of leadership we get.

Jay Spiegel suggests an alternative to the meals tax is 3 percent more funding from the Virginia legislature. He is right. I would gladly work with him and others to build a coalition to make that happen. I’ll bet Paul Krizek and Scott Surovell will be first in line. But building that coalition of northern Virginia delegates to take on Richmond will take persistence over a long time. It is not a solution for the 2017-2018 budget.

The only other source of income allowed to the supervisors to address the current crisis is property tax. Increasing property tax would be a fair way to fund schools since one of the great benefits to great schools is high property values. I would probably support it, but I can’t vote for it directly.

I prefer the meals tax. In part, because, admittedly, I don’t eat out a lot. Breakfast at Elsie’s once a week. Anniversary and birthday dinners mostly from Hunan. The meals tax would cost me about $10 on my weekly bowl of oatmeal annualized and another $10 per year for family dinners. Not much compared to what I expect from good teachers every day. But I also like the idea that I can vote for it.

While Jay and I work with Paul and Scott to secure additional funding from Richmond, lacking a short-term alternative to higher property tax, a meals tax, or languishing schools, I will speak up and vote for the Meals Tax. It is Food for Thought.

Tuck Bowerfind

Saint Luke's Church