Budget Adopted: Small Schools Win Big

Virginia’s fastest growing county reached a milestone this week: Loudoun public schools’ budget hit the $1 billion mark.

The School Board adopted a $1.07 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2017, trimming the spending plan drafted by Superintendent Eric Williams by just $214,849.

The spending plan is $86.7 million, or 8.8 percent, higher than the current fiscal year’s budget and would require a $58 million increase in county tax funds.

The funding hike aims to cover the cost of enrollment growth—projected to tick up by 3.8 percent this fall—as well as pay for an expansion of full-day kindergarten, the opening of a new elementary school and lay the groundwork for the long-awaited Academies of Loudoun.

Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) said the adopted budget takes important steps to move the county forward, not just maintain the status quo.

“If you want full-day kindergarten, if you want the Academies of Loudoun, you have to pay for it,” he said. “Those specific items are leading us to the Loudoun we need to be.”

Several line items added to Williams’ initial proposal reinstate positions and programs that the board cut in recent years in the face of tight fiscal constraints.

Perhaps the most surprising addition was to reinstate full-time principals and add full-time media/technology assistants to the county’s small western Loudoun schools. Five years ago, principals at the four smallest schools were cut to part-time positions, and two years ago, librarians and technology resource teachers were reduced to part time.

Throughout the budget process, residents have raised student safety concerns around school leaders in the building only part-time.

“I think it’s extremely challenging to run an organization part time,” Morse said, referring to the part-time principal position. “This is safety, this is security, this is continuity.”

Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) was the one board member who voted against every one of the motions to add more staff members to the small schools. He said western Loudoun parents’ complaint that their children cannot check out books from the library every day because their school is staffed with just a part-time librarian isn’t unique to small schools.

“If you look at schools with 1,000 elementary school kids, they don’t have access to the library all day throughout the week. So the idea that we’re understaffing in some of these areas, I really question,” he said.

Two board members hinted that they wouldn’t hesitate to revisit their vote during the reconciliation process if the county Board of Supervisors doesn’t fully fund the School Board’s request. Both Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) threatened to bring up the almost annual debate whether to shutter the four smallest elementary schools, Aldie, Waterford, Banneker and Lincoln.

“While we have small schools, I want them to be safe,” Sheridan said of her vote in support of full-time principals. “That will not preclude us looking at closing small schools during reconciliation.”

“This adds costs to schools we pay to maintain where students could be assigned to neighboring, larger schools and save us $2.9 million,” Rose said. “I will be looking at this issue later.”

The board left in place Williams’ $9.2 million plan to extend a full, six-hour school day to 75 percent of the county’s kindergartners. Loudoun is one of only three school divisions in Virginia that do not provide universal full-day kindergarten. (See details of the full-day kindergarten plan here.)

Rose made a motion to opt for a less aggressive, and less expensive, expansion plan but it failed 2-7 with just Rose and Turgeon in support.

The budget includes three positions focused on recruiting and retaining teachers. One of those positions would be charged with diversifying the school system’s workforce. Those tasked with hiring division employees have said they need staff dedicated to recruitment to attract more racial minorities and educators to hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and English Language Learner teachers. (See more on the diversity recruiter position here.)

A motion by Joy Maloney (Broad Run) added five full-time equivalent positions to provide one dean per grade level at every middle school. Two years ago the dean positions were reduced to one, two or three per middle school, based on enrollment. “This is having a direct effect on teachers, students and administrators. Let’s go ahead and fix it,” Maloney said.

The adopted budget also includes $1 million to follow through with the superintendent’s recommendation to begin the roll out of the Academies of Loudoun by launching the Academy of Engineering and Technology this fall, two years ahead of the full academies opening in 2018. The Academies of Loudoun will provide space to expand the existing Academies of Science and C.S. Monroe Technology Center, in addition to the Academy of Engineering and Technology. The latter is a new venture that will emphasize bio-mechanics, robotics, bioengineering and cyber-security.

The biggest subtraction from Williams’ budget was to reduce the employee contingency personnel fund by $926,060, or 10 full-time employees. The superintendent said earmarking funds for those positions would help meet the needs that come with unexpected growth.

But Morse, who made the motion to limit the contingency positions to 25, said he would be surprised if the schools grew much beyond the projected 1,978 students. Plus, it frees up funding to boost other programs, he added.

After the board waded through four hours worth of amendments Tuesday night, the final vote to adopt the plan was 7-2, with Rose and Turgeon opposing.

It was the hefty price of expanding full-day kindergarten that led to Turgeon’s no vote. “I can’t support a budget that includes $10 million focused on just one grade level,” she said.

Of her vote in opposition, Rose said the final budget undermines the superintendent’s recommendation.

“We’ve added positions that go beyond the needs-based budget that he asked for,” she said. “I think that puts us in a negative light with our counterparts [the Board of Supervisors].”

The budget will now go to the supervisors as a funding request. Next year’s fiscal outlook will become more clear after the county administrator presents his proposed budget to the supervisors Feb. 10.

School Budget Highlights

  • Reduces pool of contingency personnel by 10 FTEs ($926,060)
  • Adds five full-time positions to provide one dean per grade level for every middle school ($457,365)
  • Adds two full-time principals to Aldie, Banneker, Lincoln and Waterford ($270,000)
  • Adds five full-time positions to serve as media/technology assistants at Aldie, Banneker, Lincoln and Waterford elementary schools ($238,615)
  • Increases parent liaisons’ hours at 17 schools with a high percentage of low-income students ($177,000)
  • Adds one full-time grant specialist ($127,421)
  • Adds one full-time personnel specialist ($122,000) and $40,000 for consulting services to target diversity recruitment

dnadler@loudounnow.com
@danielle_nadler

See related story, “Superintendent Proposes $1B Budget.”