The School Board got its first chance to present its requested budget to the Board of Supervisors in person Monday, and supervisors came armed with questions.
Superintendent Dr. Eric Williams outlined a billion-dollar budget request that includes an 8.8 percent—or $86.5 million—increase from the current fiscal year. Of this, the School Board has asked for $58.1 million more in local tax funding—more than the county has to give without a tax increase.
The biggest expense increases stem from keeping up with enrollment. Both boards were caught off guard by the 3.8 percent projected increase in enrollment, or 2,910 additional students. The big question is, as Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) put it:
“Where did these kids come from?”
Higgins and other supervisors wanted to know how the School Board’s enrollment projections from past years go “so out of whack.”
“My experience with Loudoun County Public Schools has been the projections for schools and needs, historically, have been pretty doggone good,” Higgins said. “I’m kind of surprised how we got so out of line this time.”
School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said that growth in Loudoun has become concentrated in smaller areas, making it harder to predict. The burden of absorbing those new students also required that new schools be built, rather than absorbing them into existing schools spread out around the county, he said.
But some supervisors said the School Board should change the way it makes enrollment projections.
“I think the schools need to take another look at how you’re projecting by-right development,” said Loudoun Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). He said that the School Board’s projections only take into account development that requires rezoning, or by-right development that has already begun, and has a blind spot around other properties on which developers could begin to build by right at any time.
“I think, frankly ,it’s probably the single most important thing that you can do, and we can do,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles).
Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run) said the county should take into account which types of housing yield the most students in the future.
“We’re about to embark on a yearlong CPAM [Comprehensive Plan Amendment] with the Metro area, and I really think we could use some collaboration,” Meyers said. “We blew these projections.”
School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) wondered about cultural differences around family size among communities.
“I wonder if there’s a cultural value on numbers of children,” Marshall pondered, eliciting no response from other board members.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) called out one of Williams’ points—that the number of resource-intensive students like English Language Learners and poorer students has grown much faster than the student population at large. The number of “economically challenged” students, Williams reported, has grown by 109 percent since FY2009.
The Sag Lives On
Supervisors also wanted to know why “the sag”—the relatively lower salaries in the middle of the teacher salary scale, for mid-career teachers—had not been addressed.
“Two years ago, you made substantial improvements to the salary scale, and last year we funded the budget completely with even a few million dollars added,” Higgins said. “I’m wondering how the MA 10-plus (the salary for a teacher with a master’s degree and 10 years of experience) wasn’t fixed at that time.”
Higgins said his understanding was that the School Board and county were trying to fix the salary scale then.
“To do it all at one time would be very cost prohibitive,” said School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge). “To our superintendent’s credit, he did a much more scaled approach.”
“I think it was just a few percent, and I’ll remind you that when this was brought up during those discussions, we did not get enough funding to do it all at the same time,” Hornberger said.
On Whose Turf?
Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) wanted to know why artificial turf fields for the county’s four schools without them are still five and six years away.
Her counterpart on the School Board, Debbie Rose (Algonkian), pointed out that supervisors voted down funding to install artificial turf at eight schools in 2013.
“At that time, that did not proceed on your side of the aisle, so we have since been kind of working on it in a one-off way,” Rose said.
School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) said the artificial turfed fields were projected to provide a greater benefit than the cost at that time, although the price for the fields has gone up since.
“The recovery time at that point was eight years,” Morse said. “I think now it’s probably more.”
The next step in the budget review process is for supervisors to work through County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s recommendations, which do not include full funding for the school budget. The School Board will have representatives at supervisors’ work sessions. After the county board adopts its budget in April, the School Board will begin the budget reconciliation process, deciding how to distribute the money the county has given it.
Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) asked if the School Board would be able to protect priorities like salary increases, continue fixing the salary scale sag, and maintaining small class sizes if the Board of Supervisors passed a tax rate that does not fully fund the School Board’s request.
“I think that when we see the results of your decision, there are going to be nine members that are going to be jockeying to get their priorities funded,” Morse said. “I don’t think any of us can say that there is a protected piece of this budget.”