4/22/14

More Back and Forth

The highest ranking staff member of the Loudoun County Public Schools made a statement at the April 8 School Board meeting which triggered a response from the highest ranking staff member of Loudoun County. Let's give a few more details to the discussion.

Following dozens of speakers on the budget mostly pleading with the School Board to avoid making specific proposed cuts, outgoing LCPS superintendent Edgar Hatrick took a "point of privilege" during his scheduled Superintendent's Report and said:

In apparent response to a request from the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet sent the BoS a memo in response to these remarks as well as the systemwide potential Reduction in Force notices that the School Board decided to send out.

In Mr. Hemstreet's memo, he notes that he is only responding to the Leesburg Today reporting of what Dr. Hatrick said, and has not actually talked to Dr. Hatrick at all, so when Dr. Hatrick said that it is "one of the largest gaps between the School Board adopted budget and the its appropriation from the Board of Supervisors that I have seen in my 47 1/2 years in the school system," Mr. Hemstreet says that he is unclear whether Dr. Hatrick meant total money in millions of dollars or percentage cut from original request. He then proceeds to argue both cases:
"Due to the overall dollar amount of the Schools Budget of approximately $921 million (inclusive of bus leases), a $37.7 million difference is a large number. However, in terms of the overall budget, on a percentage basis, it represents a 4% difference. It should be noted that there are at least two years, FY 2009 and FY 2011, where the percentage difference between the School Board’s request and the Board appropriation, as well as the overall dollar difference, were higher than the current year difference, showing a 6.1% difference of $48.7 million in 2009 and 7.1% difference of $54.4 million in 2011." 
To borrow a phrase from Mr. Hemstreet, "in order to place the discussion into context", let's look back at what happened those two years. In FY09, the Board of Supervisors decided to raise the tax rate by 18 cents to $1.14, which required the average homeowner to pay 6.5% more in property taxes that year in order to provide a $55 million increase to the Loudoun County school system budget. The School Board had asked for nearly double that amount and had to reconcile the $48.7 million difference. That was one of the largest gaps, but the context helps to explain that in that year, the low point of the recession, there was an actual budget crisis. The Leesburg Today article covering the final School Board budget adoption: School Board Adopts Budget Cuts; Warns Of Small School Closures

According to the Loudoun Times, in FY11 the School Board had to reconcile a $19.3 million gap due to the Board of Supervisors raising the tax rate by 5.5 cents to $1.30 that year. This is far less than the $54.4 million gap that Mr. Hemstreet cited. Looking further into his memo, you can see there are three asterisks next to the number quoted in his chart for that year, but even with that, it is unclear why the Loudoun Times reporting and his recounting are so far off.

This year, the Board of Supervisors chose to cut the tax rate by 5 cents to $1.155, the equalized tax rate this year, resulting in no increase in the average homeowner's property taxes, reducing the School Board's request by $38 million. This year, incomes in Loudoun County have risen along with property values. Thus, the "artificial crisis" to which Dr. Hatrick refers.

The School Board decided to send out a systemwide Reduction in Force notice at their April 2 meeting, as staff said they required some time to produce them, and they legally must be sent by April 16. They were sent home on April 9, the day before teachers began their Spring Break.  Mr. Hemstreet suggests that the RIF notice could have been given a week later after the School Board made more specific decisions as to which positions may be reduced. Besides this hypothetical notice arriving during Spring Break, when the LCPS administration is also closed, the School Board had not decided a week later what specific positions will be reduced, and still haven't.

Mr. Hemstreet repeats the Board of Supervisors' mantra that the School Board could still give a significant raise of 3% to its employees. He doesn't mention that this is instead of an average 3.9% increase that fixes the salary scale and providing a step increase for teachers for the first time since 2009. The School Board has already proposed delaying this increase until October, 2014, potentially saving $3.6 million.

Additionally, he explains that the new positions needed to address growth in the School Board's proposed budget are greater than the percentage increase in enrollment. He fails to mention that LCPS is opening a new high school, middle school, and elementary school, and the costs involved in staffing those new schools being higher than just an enrollment boost. He does understand though, that the LCPS staff uses a zero-based budget formula, so that they figure out how many positions they need based on this year alone, not in comparison to prior years. In doing so, they go over the enrollment growth, because positions have not kept up with growth in years past. School Board chairman Eric Hornberger explains this here:



The takeaway? There's often more to the story.

Whether this has any effect on the School Board's decisions on how to reconcile the $38 million gap remains to be seen. Perhaps it would only effect budget discussions next year. 

The School Board will continue the budget discussion tonight at their regularly scheduled meeting. If necessary, they will continue the budget discussion tomorrow night at a special budget reconciliation work session. Both meetings are at 6:30pm at the School Administration building in Ashburn. Public input is accepted tonight. Call (571) 252-1020 to sign up to speak in advance or register at the door by 6:30pm.

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