Unfortunate, sad and painful were among words uttered from the dais late Thursday by members of the Loudoun County School Board as they worked to scale back their initial spending plan by almost $17 million.
“We are not in the position to have everything that we want to offer to students in this county. That is the sad truth,” board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said ahead of the final vote to adopt the budget for fiscal year 2017.
County supervisors voted to give the school system $694.8 million, a 5.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year, but not enough to cover everything the School Board had planned in a $1.07 billion budget. The school system is expected to add about 2,000 additional students this fall and open a new elementary school.
The first vote cast by the School Board on Thursday night was quick and unanimous, and that was to maintain current classroom sizes throughout the school division. Slightly increasing the number of students in classrooms on average was one of the options Superintendent Eric Williams recommended the board consider to save $10.2 million.
But several of the biggest ticket items—including the full-day kindergarten expansion and whether to have physical education instructors teach sex education instead of Family Life Education teachers—came down to split votes, as board members clashed over what should take priority.
After more than an hour of debate over the merits of leaving the Family Life Education program as is, the board settled on a compromise, to keep 10 out of 19 FLE instructor positions.
Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia Ambrose said her department could make do with as few as four FLE instructors. They could help train physical education instructors on the curriculum and step in to teach the most sensitive lessons.
“We feel like we could accomplish the same delivery,” she said.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian) opposed almost every motion of the night because, she explained, she wanted to keep room in the budget for the FLE teachers.
“This is absolutely something we should spend money on. It pays huge dividends,” she said. She added that, if the instruction is taught by physical education teachers, she would opt her children out of the program.
Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) sounded just as outraged. He said he was moved by the FLE instructors who spoke during Wednesday’s budget public hearing, who told stories of children feeling safe enough to speak up about sexual abuse they were enduring. “Who are they going to tell they’ve been abused? They sure aren’t going to tell their P.E. teacher.”
Some teachers may receive a “reduction in force” letter that notifies them of the possibility of losing their job, but Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services Kimberly Hough stressed that that would likely not happen. Instead, they would be reassigned within the division.
The board also settled on a compromise over how much to expand full-day kindergarten, the most repeated campaign issue among candidates in almost every local office up for election last November. The budget the board adopted in January would have expanded the program to about 75 percent of the county’s kindergartners this fall. But that plan was scaled back with a 7-2 vote Thursday to provide a full school day to half of Loudoun kindergartners. It adds 32 more full-day kindergarten classrooms throughout the county, bringing the total to 101.
Loudoun County is one of only three school systems in Virginia that does not provide universal full-day kindergarten. This school year, 34 percent of Loudoun kindergartners attend school for a full day. Students considered academically at-risk get priority for those seats, and the rest are offered through a lottery.
Votes fell on an east-versus-west split on Jill Turgeon’s (Blue Ridge) motion to keep $238,615 in the budget for five hybrid media and technology assistant positions at the county’s smallest elementary schools, all located in rural western Loudoun.
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and Jeff Morse (Dulles), who were among six who opposed the motion, said it’s unfair to expect the same level of staff at a school with 100 students as with 1,000 students. Hornberger recalled that when the board considered closing the small schools a few years ago, several parents told him they were willing to go with less. “If they want that level of service, they can get it right down the road to Culbert or Mountain View [elementary schools],” he said. “But that’s not what I heard from them when they came here. We have to cut somewhere.”
The push for teachers to use more technology needs to come with technical support, said Turgeon, who was joined by DeKenipp and Beth Huck (At Large) in favor of the positions. “I don’t think it matters whether there are 100 students or 1,000 students if there’s no one there to support the school,” she said.
Board members did agree to provide a full-time principal to every school this fall. Four of the smallest schools have operated with part-time principals for the past five years.
Among several other changes made to the budget, the board voted to cut the $5,000-a-year stipends nationally board certified teachers in half, and restore three of the middle school dean positions.
Several visibly frustrated board members commented on the supervisors’ decision to not fully fund their budget request. “Our problem is what the county is willing to pay for is different than what they expect,” Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said.
Supervisors approved a slight real estate tax rate increase. The average homeowner will pay about $47 more in taxes next year.
Joy Maloney (Broad Run) noted that some progress had been made during the budget season. She mentioned the full-day kindergarten expansion and beginning to fix what’s been dubbed the “salary sag,” referring to less-than-competitive pay for the division’s mid-level educators.
“We want to keep working toward paying our teachers as the professionals that they are. I will continue to work with this board and Board of Supervisors toward that,” she said, and speaking to community members watching the meeting, added, “We will also need your help on that.”