Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
Everything is awesome,
When you’re living the dream!
I just saw the Lego movie with my children, and that song was an integral part of the movie. As a Mom with two children, I spend a lot of time at movies like this and, as so often happens in these types of movies, my mind wanders a bit.
See, if you listen to the reports about Prince William County, everything here is Awesome. We have the lowest taxes in the area and are one of the wealthiest counties in the nation!
Everything is Awesome and PWC, we are Living the Dream!
Except where we aren’t. Our taxes may be among the lowest in the region, but our tax rate is among the highest. Our household income may be among the highest in the nation, but it’s one of the lowest in the region.
Which statistic people cite depends largely on what argument they want to make. People who think our taxes need to go up to increase money for schools and government programs tend to argue that PWC is one of the richest counties in the nation and our taxes are among the lowest in the region. People who think our taxes are too high and PWC and PWCS need to live within their budgets tend to argue that our household income has decreased and is now among the lowest in the area, but our tax rate is among the highest in the area.
They’re all telling the truth; they’re just cherry picking the statistic that they think best supports their argument. The amazing part is that neither household income, taxes, nor tax rates are a good measure of whether a tax increase is affordable. A 2.5% average tax increase may only be a pizza a month, but if you’ve already cut pizza out of your budget, it’s not affordable.
Our taxes are based on the value of the property we hold in the county; primarily the value of our homes. Unless you’re in the market to buy a house, the value of your home has nothing to do with how much money you make. You buy your house and its value goes up, or down, depending on market conditions. You could have a highly valued house with a low income or you could have a house with nothing in value and a huge income. While people with higher incomes tend to own more highly values homes, in times where incomes have taken such a big hit, like the prolonged recession we’ve been in, the fact that someone lives in a high valued home doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got money to spare.
People pick and choose their metric on the education side as well.
When it comes to teacher salaries, which metric people cite tends to depend on what argument they’re making. Teachers cite the average, because PWCS’ average teacher salary is one of the lowest in the area. PWCS cites the Step 9, Masters salary and the maximums, because PWCS is about average for the Step 9, Masters and among the highest for the maximum. The problem with all three of those measures is they don’t tell the whole story.
The average salary doesn’t include the average length of service or degree, and a school system with a lot of newer teachers will have a lower average salary than a school system with a lot of more experienced teachers. The Step 9, Masters salary figure doesn’t indicate how long it takes to get there, so in one school system it may take 9 years to get to a Step 9, Masters while in anther it may take 15 years. The maximum salary doesn’t say how long it takes to get there or how many teachers ever achieve it.
When it comes to the cost per pupil, things get fuzzy. The cost per pupil includes federal funding, grants, and state funding, which local taxpayers have no control over, and local funding. They exclude debt service, but debt service is one of the largest annual expenditures in our county, outside of salaries and benefits, and has to be paid with annual tax receipts.
Without the missing information, all the metrics are pretty much useless.
I took a slightly different look at the numbers, which you can see in the spreadsheet below.
I listed the median household income, median home value, and property taxes for the counties in our area and calculated property taxes as a percentage of household income.
PWC homeowners pay 4.16% of their annual income as property taxes, on average. The only counties whose homeowners pay a lower percentage than PWC, are Stafford and Fauquier. Manassas homeowners pay 4.17%, almost the same as PWC homeowners. Homeowners in Loudoun and Fairfax pay 4.43% and 4.72%, respectively.
PWC also has a large population of people living below the poverty level. Only Manassas, Arlington, and Alexandria have a greater percentage of residents living below the poverty level.
When it comes to support for public schools, I want to know what our local support for public schools is, both as a percentage of total county spending and on a per pupil basis. To determine that, I listed the total General Fund for each county, the total allocated to public schools each year, and calculated what percentage of the county General Fund is allocated to public schools. PWC provides about 49% of its General Fund to public schools. Only Manassas Park, Arlington, and Alexandria allocate a smaller portion of their General Fund to public schools.
When you take enrollment into account, only Manassas Park provides less local money per public school pupil than does PWC.
We’ve been told that PWC provides 56.75% of revenue to the public schools. I’m not sure why it’s only 49% in PWC. The 49% is from the WABE report and no one has attempted to correct it. I hope someone can explain where the additional $120 million in the county’s General Fund came from and goes to.
When it comes to teacher salaries, the starting salaries say quite a bit, because teachers are like everyone else, and the “best and brightest” will go where they’re paid the best.
Stafford, Manassas Park, Fauquier, and the City of Falls Church have lower starting salaries than PWC for teachers with a Bachelors. Only Stafford, Manassas Park, and Fauquier have lower starting salaries than PWC for teachers with a Masters. And all of them have smaller classes than PWCS does.
Clearly things need to change in our county.
Our class sizes are huge. I know middle school teachers with 192 students. I’ve seen Algebra classes with 35 kids in them. I’ve seen elementary classes with 29 kids in them, and only 1 teacher.
Our teachers are underpaid. Not only is there not enough in their school budgets for basic supplies, no matter what the Superintendent says, but their salaries are too low. Our starting salaries need to increase by $1200 – $1800 to be competitive with Fairfax and Loudoun, and they have smaller classes.
PWC only provides 49% of its General Fund on public schools. That means we spend 51% on other stuff like police, fire and rescue, parks, and libraries, but I know those are also underfunded. I have to question where all of our money is going. If it’s not for police, fire and reside, parks, libraries, and schools, then what are we spending so much money on?
The county and school division’s CIP are unsustainable. The school system projects almost $1 billion in CIP spending over the next 5 years. We can’t afford that.
Something needs to give. The BLS projects that household income in PWC declined in 2013, so just raising taxes to fill the gaps isn’t the answer. Our county and school division staff and our elected officials need to take a long hard look what we’re spending money on. They need to make sure our spending priorities match our service priorities, BEFORE they ask county homeowners to pay more.
$100 a year may just be a pizza month, but in my household, we’ve already cut that monthly pizza.
Everything isn’t awesome.
UPDATE: For those who have asked for it…..Everything is Awesome!