At the May 29 Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents (LEAP) meeting, School Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said that the Board of Supervisors is focused on an equalized tax rate. He said that if parents don’t think that is right, they need an effective way of communicating that to the Board of Supervisors. But if school spending is the most important thing to you, he suggested you move to Falls Church. He explained, "Falls Church puts a premium on education. They put the tax dollars there. That's what their community does. That's not what the Loudoun County community does." He doesn’t think the Board of Supervisors will go above an equalized tax rate for FY16.
After budget reconciliation, the School Board decided to try to improve the budget process by starting it earlier. They have held work sessions on June 21 and August 14 and plan another in September, with the date to be determined.
At the June session, School Board chair Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) shared a summary of what the overall effect was of this upcoming school year’s budget. After reconciliation, the number of LCPS full-time employees increased by 1.8% even though the school system was expected to grow by 3.4% and they hired more teachers to reduce the average elementary school class size.
At both work sessions, several School Board members commented on the criticisms they had received from the Board of Supervisors during the budget cycle: that the School Board had not spent enough time on their budget and that the School Board’s proposed budget had surprised them with the high cost that the Board of Supervisors hadn’t planned for. School Board Vice Chair Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said that she felt she had not spent enough time on the budget. School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) agreed that he hadn't either.
School Board member Tom Reed (At-Large) said that the School Board needs to provide input to the Board of Supervisors prior to the BoS setting its preliminary fiscal guidance so the supervisors cannot say they are surprised by the school systems’ needs. School Board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) said that the School Board needs to make clear the ramifications of the Board of Supervisors proposed funding on the school system early. The supervisors’ minds never changed from September to April on where the tax rate should be set in this last cycle. Hornberger pointed out that when LCPS received the Board of Supervisors preliminary fiscal guidance of an equalized tax rate back last October, LCPS budget director Leigh Burden had sent them a memo stating that the money provided would be $80 million short even to meet their most basic requirements to maintain services with the expected growth. In fact, the BoS had suggested the equalized tax rate knowing that the preliminary LCPS numbers to sustain the school system with the expected growth would require approximately $47.5 million more than they were providing.
Looking ahead to the FY16 budget, the Board of Supervisors Finance Committee met on July 8 and heard from the County Administrator a preliminary fiscal outlook. While Loudoun unemployment was very low, the national economy was improving, and Loudoun job growth was the highest in 7 years, the County Administrator projected a tight budget year. Supervisor Chair Scott York (At-Large) encouraged the County Administrator to reach out to the new Superintendent to start their relationship off right in hopes of an improvement over the County’s relationship with outgoing superintendent Dr. Hatrick. He said that it will come down to the type of budget the BoS thinks the community can afford. Supervisor Shawn Williams (Broad Run) agreed that the dialog needed to start with telling the School Board what the county could afford. He said, “After three years, I think it’s pretty obvious the will isn’t to raise taxes.” Supervisor Matt Letourneau (Dulles) said that when it came down to it, the BoS didn’t trust the numbers being provided by the School Board.
In that regard, the School Board requested more transparency in the LCPS budget documents and Ms. Burden presented a sample at the August 14 work session. The School Board was pleased with the greater detail. They also received a document outlining a draft elementary school staffing framework, with middle and high school frameworks to come, that explained how the school system decides how many employees to hire based on enrollment.
Ms. Burden also presented a preliminary budget document that new Superintendent Dr. Eric Williams said he had shared with Chairman York and county staff that day. It showed that estimates of additional costs needed for enrollment growth, new schools, salaries and benefits would total $53 million WITHOUT any new initiatives or salary increases. Dr. Williams presented estimates of other possible new costs they had discussed at the prior work session:
- A “One to the World” initiative to provide a combination of school-owned and personal technology devices to connect to the internet and the necessary infrastructure support would cost millions.
- Class size reductions - Reducing the average class size by 1 student all levels was estimated at $15 million.
- Cost of living increase for all employees - $6.9 million per 1% increase.
School Board members requested that LCPS look at restoring some of the cuts from prior years: middle school deans and other reduced staff, summer school, elementary school foreign language, and bus replacements.
The BoS Finance Committee is planning to vote on a preliminary tax rate for the County to use to create its budget at their September 9 meeting. It is expected to be voted on by the Board of Supervisors as a whole on September 17. Will they be paying attention? Will you have let your voice be heard? If they again decide to cut the tax rate and not fund the schools’ needs, will they change their minds before finalizing it in April? We’ll be watching.