The Board of Supervisors and the School Board held the first of joint two meetings on the budget this week, but spent much of the meeting talking about how to talk.
The two boards tackled tense rhetoric over the school budget head-on. School board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) said that the two boards have a “very good working relationship” and that he expects that to continue, although he added there is a “natural tension” between the two boards.
“Your responsibility is to set the overall tax rate, but the Virginia Constitution has instilled in us the responsibility to educate,” Morse said. He said that tension is by design.
Members of both boards said they were eager to cooperate, but that natural tension did surface several times.
Several supervisors have expressed frustration with the School Board’s budget, which requires more money than the county has to give without raising taxes. At supervisors’ request, the school board has ranked its 10 highest-priority capital projects, the top eight of which are all either new schools, additional classrooms, or trailers to meet capacity needs while new schools are built—all in the Dulles North and Dulles South areas.
At the school board’s prompting, Superintendent Dr. Eric Williams spoke about the school budget request, describing what’s at stake. Proposed expansions to full day kindergarten and teacher pay could be on the chopping block, he said.
“But even with those, there are other, tougher choices that need to be made,” Williams said. “Will we be able to maintain class sizes, will we be able to maintain staffing. And I can’t stand here today and say that those would be off the table.”
The Tax Rate
“I was rather surprised, in a period of great growth of the school system, that someone would come up with an equalized tax rate,” said school board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg). “In many ways you’ve set us up in a bad situation because you have already fixated on a tax rate.”
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet has presented the Board of Supervisors with a proposed budget based on a tax rate that keeps the average real estate tax bill level, as directed by the board. He also presented the board with a recommended budget that increases the real estate tax rate to generate more revenue in the face of a stalled tax base caused by flat property values.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that we backed you into a corner with a tax rate, because I don’t know what that tax rate is, and neither does anybody else up here,” returned county Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). He defended the proposed budget: “We have to start the budget process somewhere.”
“There are hard choices, and let’s not forget at the end that this board’s final charter, as much as people hate to talk about it, we have to set a tax rate and do an appropriation,” Buona said.
However, he also signaled that he may be open to a small tax increase. The current and equalized tax rate is $1.135 per $100 of assessed value; Hemstreet has told the board it will need to raise the rate to $1.17 to fully fund the schools’ budget request, including an increase in the share of tax revenue sent to schools.
“I really personally don’t believe we can get to $1.17,” Buona said. “I really don’t believe that. Can we do better than $1.135? Personally, yes.”
It’s Not Like Last Year
Last year, the Board of Supervisors—at that time with different people in five of its nine seats—fully funded the school board’s request, drawing from a $65 million general fund balance. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the county likely will not be able to meet the school board’s full request this year, but said “if we’re going to be honest, let’s be honest on all sides.”
“That was done in an election year, and the fact that most everyone who did that, not everyone, but almost everyone, ran on the fact that we fully funded the budget in an election year is significant,” Randall said. “Why is it not equally important that we fully fund the budget when it’s not an election year?”
Second-term Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) “wholeheartedly” rejected that logic. He said that board used its best-ever revenue year to pay down debt and one-time expenses, freeing up money for the school budget, and said he would have been willing to do that regardless of election year.
“Let’s be a little bit careful with that insinuation, because I don’t think that is honest or fair, at least to some of us, and you’re ascribing motives to some of us that didn’t happen,” Letourneau said.
“As a new supervisor, I would have loved to have had some fund balance saved from last year, I will openly admit that,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run). “But I also think we have to be very, very careful about impugning each other’s motives.”
Despite the tension, both boards finished the meeting expressing goodwill and optimism about the relationship between the boards, if not the county’s fiscal picture.
“It is more important than ever on the county level to show our kids what leadership actually looks like,” Randall said.