Mental health and transportation are two areas that Loudoun County School Board members stressed are in dire need of more support, and they made them a priority in their adopted budget.
The board tonight unanimously agreed on a $1.24 billion spending plan for next fiscal year, shaving roughly $250,000 off of the budget recommended last month by Superintendent Eric Williams.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said the school system has identified “several weak areas,” including mental health services, transportation, dyslexia services and employee pay. “The superintendent did a fantastic job of addressing those in this budget,” he said. “Those improvements are not wants but needs and are very important to the health and welfare to our school system.”
A surprising addition to the budget—that prompted a lengthy debate—was for $87,584 to allow each School Board member to have the option to hire a staff aide. Board of Supervisors have in the past encouraged School Board members to carve out funds for staff aides, but the majority of the School Board has never supported the idea.
That changed tonight.
Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) noted that less than $10,000 per board member for an aide pales in comparison to the Board of Supervisors’ annual budget of $150,000 for staff. The six board members in support said the aides would help with communication with constituents and relieve a burden on senior staff members.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian), joined by Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) in opposition, said that the aide’s hourly pay would be more than what she is paid to serve on the board. School Board members are paid a salary of $20,000. “This is clearly not intended to be a full time job,” she said, adding that managing an aide might actually add more to a board member’s plate.
The budget maintains Williams’ proposal to create unified mental health support teams for each high school. It includes the addition of five psychologists, eight social workers, eight school counselors, two supervisors and two student assistance.
The need for more mental health services came up when Tom Marshall (Leesburg) suggested decreasing the number of new psychologist positions from five to three. The motion, which he later rescinded, was met with a surge of opposition from his colleagues.
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) acknowledged that during tight budget seasons, he has voted down recommendations from school staff to add psychologists, but the events of the past year has changed things, he said.
The school system has seen a rise in teen suicides. Its top psychologists and counselors have held emergency preventative workshops to equip students to cope and to encourage them to speak up when they or their friends feel overwhelmed.
“We tell them to speak up, but there has to be people there to listen,” Hornberger said in support of adding more psychologists. “I understand it’s a lot to ask in one year, but it’s an initiative that is a growing need—to provide professionals in our schools who are able to help and are equipped to address these concerns.”
Turgeon agreed that it’s vital to have psychologists accessible to students. “Having a professional in the school saved my child’s life—literally saved his life.”
“We need to have more boots on the ground on this one,” Rose added.
Mary Kealy, assistant superintendent of the Pupil Services Department, said targeting extra funds toward more professional mental health staff will mean going from a “sporadic” approach to addressing students’ needs to providing intensive prevention and intervention. Plus, her department needs staff to coordinate with community agencies and public providers as more students in crisis ask for help, she said. “There is a lot of complexities that, right now, are not being addressed because we don’t have the staffing to do it.”
The budget also gives the transportation department more attention than its received in years. It leaves intact the recommendation for pay raises, increased hours, and all but one of the four new administrative positions.
The changes are in response to a desperate need to attract and retain school bus drivers. The school system has 114 vacant driver positions, which has meant more stress on the transportation department’s staff and longer bus rides for students.
The School Board backed the superintendent’s plan to create a new position, performing arts specialist, at $123,000. About a dozen people showed up to the public hearing on the budget earlier this week to urge board members to approve for the administrative position. They said there is a need for a go-to person for theater programs countywide.
Hornberger, and the rest of the board, agreed. “We do have a growing program and it needs more support than we have been able to offer it,” he said.
The board also added $127,325 to hire an assistant principal at J. Michael Lunsford Middle School. The vote actually changed staffing policy which initially allowed for a third assistant principal only once a middle school hits 1,600 students. Lunsford Middle School has 1,650 students.
Majority of board members agreed to add a $120,600 line item to increase the stipend for co-curricular activities by 2 percent. “These are people who take on extra responsibilities to make schools run smoothly,” Hornberger said, noting that a raise to just keep pace with inflation illustrates the board values them.
The budget relies on about $759 million in county government funds, up 9 percent over the current fiscal year. School Board members sounded hopeful that their request could be nearly fully funded. County leaders have said that revenue projections are better than they have been in years.
The budget is now sent to the Board of Supervisors as a formal funding request. Supervisors are scheduled to adopt the county government’s budget, of which school funding makes up the majority, on April 4.