The $120 Million Referendum: Is Its Passage in the Classroom Interest of Our School Children?

  • Forcing a Square “Financial” Peg Into a Round “Financial” Hole

  • Development Revenues Would Not Cover Bond Service Charges

  • City Generated Financial Data Shows Risk and Contrivance

By Sam Mabry

Mabry is a former Falls Church City Council Vice Mayor

September 26, 2017

It is a reasonable expectation that when a community plans to commit a $120 Million for a new facility, that the least risky financial path should be selected in order to insure the most secure educational future for our children—especially the youngest now or soon to be in our school rooms.

More specifically, the entire focus would be on insuring the long term educational welfare of the children—ample funds for teacher and staff salaries—rather that saddling the city with 30 years of restricting debt.

Not this time.

City Leaders Decide Voters Cannot Be Trusted to Make the “Right” Choice

Financially more favorable alternatives to repair, replace and remodel George Mason were discarded without serious evaluation by the School Board and Council Members who cavalierly decided to deny our citizens an opportunity for choice in the voting booth.

The evidence that the members of the City Council and School Board chose the riskiest financial path rests in their own documentation and words: In short, it’s hiding in plain sight.

Referendum Built on a Sand Pile of Financial Assumptions and Distortions

  • It’s Not 10 Acres of Developable Land–After streets, curbs, gutters and sidewalks are dedicated, the parcel will be closer to eight acres, or a 20 percent reduction is developable land with an attendant negative impact of net revenue to the city.
  • A $40 Million Land Sale Price Is Optimistic for 10 Acres–According to the City Assessor’s documentation commercially zoned land in the city has a market value of $2.5+ an acre.

School Population is Dynamic—Not Static

The student growth assumptions underpinning the referendum is that the school population will continue to grow unabated for the next 15 years after showing substantial gains for the previous 37 years. In 1964, our schools had some 2,000 students but as a result of demographic changes that number dropped to 1,000 by 1980. No trend lasts forever and the Council and School Board are essentially asking the voters to accept that it does.

In that regard, recent demographic data for Northern Virginia suggests that populations and student growth may once again be slowing.

Choosing the Most Favorable Financial Assumptions–and the Attendant Risk

Notwithstanding that the school budget—mostly for teachers and staff—has grown by more than 5-6% over the last several years, the Superintendent calculated his operating budget over the next 10 years at a growth rate of 4%.

And then, at the end of that 10 year projection, the Superintendent opines that school system would require an additional $30 Million over and above the annual 4% budget growth to meet operational needs.

On Election Day

The data seem clear: If, on the basis of the city’s financial capacity, and the Council and School Board’s lack of candor and forthrightness, you place the educational quality in the classroom for your children ahead of $120 Million of bricks and mortar, you will not support the referendum.

More to come….

6 Comments on "The $120 Million Referendum: Is Its Passage in the Classroom Interest of Our School Children?"

  1. Ms. Connelly appears to ignore the conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one. She is not going to recuse herself on votes where she should. But the voters can do this for her and resolve this, and that is to not re-elect her. It is that simple.

  2. Hi Erik: As I expressed to you in front of the 7-11 some months ago, I have never found in all of your Falls Church Post comments, as well as in that conversation, that you are connected in any signifiant way to the realities of municipal finance. In you most recent comment herein, you clearly seem to join Vice Mayor Mary Beth Connolly in her advice why the citizens should vote for the referendum–and that is, “take a leap of faith.” The acting Superintendent believed that the school population growth could be resolved with a $60 Million+ reconstruction/modernization paradigm–a point that has been largely ignored. The acting Superintendent was a man of experience and his potential solution was snuffed out for the voters to consider by five Council Members who put “wants” before “needs.” And we will surely need that “other” $60 Million given the physical size of our revenue generating footprint and the paltry return provided by the mixed use projects. Some day, I hope your command of hard financial facts will match your rhetorical abilities. All best. Sam

    • Sam, I’m not sure what financial facts I don’t have command of. I don’t deny the costs are large and taxes will go up. I don’t deny that our city would be better off, all things being equal, with lower taxes and greater economic diversity. But we only have the hand we have been dealt today — which includes lots of tax money that must have been saved over the last 20 years when we didn’t renovate the HS earlier. I’m trying to avoid making this personal. I don’t deny that I am optimistic about the potential for economic development on the 10 acres and elsewhere within in the City. What “financial facts” do you think I don’t understand? I realize that we are bonding over 30 years and there are trade-offs in doing so, I realize that operational costs are not guaranteed to stay flat. My only point is that even if you assume all your facts are true and even if you look at the Bond proposal through your lens of focusing a lot on the costs and risks (which is appropriate), that it would be valuable to consider the alternative through that same lens. Where are the details about the renovation and expansion plan, including a plan (and costs) for where students will go during renovation? Where are the detailed forecasts of construction and borrowing costs for the renovation, particularly since it will be delayed at least one year later (I presume that such an expense should also go before the voters)? What are the alternatives and risks if the current bond fails and then the renovation bond fails a year later? In questioning the student enrollment projections (they are certainly not written in stone) aren’t some taking a “leap of faith” that the growth will slow or cease? Nothing in this debate or discussion is black and white, there is great nuance and a myriad of pieces that interplay. There is no perfect solution. But I believe, after attending many meetings and researching many of the issues, that the current bond proposal is the best option we have — certainly better than the option of denying the bond referendum and going back to the drawing board for another plan that will still be very expense and provide less value. I value your perspective and your questions – in fact, I hope that you will attend the candidate forum tonight and other local events to press local leaders to answer them.

  3. “Financially more favorable alternatives to repair, replace and remodel George Mason were discarded without serious evaluation by the School Board and Council Members who cavalierly decided to deny our citizens an opportunity for choice in the voting booth.” This is simply untrue in multiple ways. “Financially more favorable” is subject to discussion and opinion and analysis depending what factors are used. The cost of a new school that has larger capacity and room for economic development, is less expensive per student per year (in part because of longer projected lifespan). That is just one example of how these statements that are made to appear conclusive in this article are in fact opinion or subject to additional exploration. Also re: “deny our citizens an opportunity for choice in the voting booth”? Of course, the way a bond referendum works is that it is an up or down vote. But it was a long road to get to this vote… We the citizens elected the Council members and most of them were elected recently enough to have given their general opinion about the bond issues before they were elected, so citizens had a voice at the ballot. In the last 18 months, the elected officials welcomed public input and participation at dozens of public events, most of which were sparsely attended. If there was a groundswell of voices at those meetings seeking to move things in a different direction, it would of course have been in their interest to explore those in more detail. I don’t expect to change your minds, Sam or Mark, but I want to set the record straight.

  4. I am Not Taking a Leap of Faith | September 26, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Reply

    Mary Beth Connolly is not “taking a leap of faith” but she wants us to. She’s on the City Council and School payroll reportedly drawing a salary from both. Even if she were not taking a salary from one or the other, she could not be an honest broker on the referendum issues. She is in a classic conflict of interest serving two entities, in one of which she is superior to the other, and there are few other states and localities other than Falls Church and the Commonwealth of Virginia where a public official could get away with such conduct.

  5. Yes, it’s bizarre that the Superintendent says the schools will need 4% more every year to meet increasing operating costs at almost the same time the City Manager projects that the City revenue will grow only 2.5% per year in the future.

    The bizarre part of this situation is that no one in leadership is interested in the impact of these projections. Unless corrected, these projections, just 5 years down the road, mean that is more difficult to pay increasing school operational costs than the $ 7.3 million/year in bond payments. It’s pure folly to believe we can pay both starting in about 2023. What will happen? What’s the plan?

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