Op-Ed: Reasons Why Fairfax Needs a Meals Tax

FCPS School Board member Pat HynesThis is an Op-Ed from Pat Hynes, Fairfax County Public School Board’s Hunter Mill representative, about the Meals Tax referendum that will put to county voters on Nov. 8. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

If you had told me, when I was running for school board five years ago, that I would spend so much time talking about money and taxes, I might have been a little discouraged. But advocating for revenue is part of the job — the people of this community expect excellent schools with world-class curricular and extracurricular programs, and we’re smart enough to know that you get what you pay for in this life.

I learned early on that school funding in Virginia has some serious structural challenges — we send at least three times as much revenue down to Richmond as we get back for our schools and other critical public services. And then Richmond ties our hands when it comes to raising revenue locally for local needs.

A meals tax is one of very few options available to local governments, which is why two-thirds of Virginia counties — and most towns and cities — have adopted a meals tax to help balance their reliance on property taxes.

Local revenue since 2008 has not kept pace with growing population and rising costs. That is certainly true for the school system. Between 2008 and 2015, the gap between revenue and needs was so wide that by fiscal year 2015 the school system was spending $1000 less per child — in real dollars — than in 2008. We got there by freezing teacher pay and raising class sizes several times, and annual cuts to central office.

Being lean is a good thing — we are stewards of the public’s resources and we take that responsibility seriously. In 2013, the state paid for a comprehensive efficiency study of FCPS by Gibson Consulting. The Gibson report found just $10 million in potential savings, all of which the school system implemented in the first year. According to the Washington Area Boards of Education comparison guide, FCPS has far and away the leanest central office in the region, which includes other large systems with similar economies of scale.

We also, unfortunately, have one of the lowest teacher salary scales in the region — $5-10,000 a year lower than market average and as much as $20,000 a year lower than neighboring Arlington County. And our elementary class sizes are some of the highest in the region.

Last year, this community advocated loud and clear for the school system, and the BOS responded with a shot in the arm that has allowed us to make some important reinvestments, including bringing our teacher salary scale halfway to market average. That was great news, but we have further to go — and the 4-cent property tax increase that paid for that extra revenue is simply  not a sustainable approach going forward.

Most surrounding jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have a meals tax. When we eat in Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Vienna or Herndon, we are helping those communities pay for their important public services and high quality of life. If we want to keep our great teachers — and the families and companies who choose Fairfax County for its great schools — it’s time for Fairfax County to get up to speed and implement a modest meals tax.

Finally, I have heard the claims about a meals tax being regressive. With 65,000 Fairfax students living in poverty, you can be sure that the school system is on the front lines daily attending to their educational and personal needs. The extent to which a lower-income family pays a small tax on prepared meals strengthens our ability to serve their children effectively. Those pennies on the dollar are repaid to them many times over.

Photo: Pat Hynes/FCPS

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