School leaders gathered around a table with Loudoun County supervisors Wednesday evening to formally request $759 million in local tax funding for public schools next fiscal year.
Superintendent Eric Williams explained the intricacies of the full $1.24 billion spending plan adopted by the Loudoun County School Board. The budget relies on a 9 percent increase in local tax dollars over the current fiscal year, while enrollment is expected to grow by about 3,000 students, or 3.8 percent.
Supervisors have questioned why the rate of the school system’s operating budget is increasing faster than its student population.
But Williams said there are a lot of additional costs to a growing school system, beyond just providing more seats for more students.
He explained that Loudoun County continues to add more school buildings, which increases the need for employees and the overall operations and maintenance costs. He also noted that the school system has added special education students and students in need of extra help to learn English at a higher rate than the general student population growth. Each of those students cost more to educate.
But, he stressed, that the amount the county government spends to educate one child, on average, still is comparatively lower than eight years ago. Local funding per pupil in fiscal year 2009 was $9,202, as compared to $8,028 (adjusted for inflation) next fiscal year, if the School Board’s full budget request is funded.
“I show you this just for context—the county contribution is not at the same level it was in FY09,” Williams said. “We feel that data shows that what we’re requesting is reasonable.”
The superintendent also put a spotlight on areas in which the school system has made progress, including full-day kindergarten. Just two years ago, 518 students, or 11 percent of Loudoun kindergartners, attended school for a full academic day. By this fall, the plan is to earmark $8.9 million to provide as many as 4,600 students, or 82 percent of all Loudoun kindergartners, with a full day.
He also highlighted line items in the budget that will provide more mental health services to secondary school students, and increase hours and pay for bus drivers, in an effort to attract and retain more drivers. “We are being assertive in this area because of the great need and the challenges we face in filling bus driver positions,” the superintendent said.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who chairs the county board’s finance committee, told Williams and School Board members that he was glad to see progress being made to restore some of what was lost during difficult budget years following the recession. But several county government departments also are in dire need of more staff and pay increases, he said.
He noted that about 77 percent of Loudoun County Public Schools employees live in the county, while only about half of the county employees do. Most commute in from the west where the cost of living is lower. “We need to address some of these issues on the county side,” he said. “I just want to give you a heads up on that because it might be impacting future budget years.”
Some of those shortfalls could be made up this budget cycle, as the budget outlook for fiscal year 2018 is brighter than it has been in several years. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed budget, presented to supervisors last week, calls for the addition of 176 full-time equivalent jobs and carves out $770.4 million for the schools. That would come up only $3.5 million short of the School Board’s request. That funding gap has been as much as $35 million in recent years.
Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) noted that the growth in the county, especially in the business sector, is to thank for the increased revenue. The data centers alone are providing $150 million in revenue this year, he said. “Five years ago, that number was about $25 million. I know a lot of people don’t want to see that growth, but at the same time that growth is what has put us in this position.”
The Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 2 at 3 p.m., both at the Loudoun County Government center, 1 Harrison St. in Leesburg. It will hold another Saturday, March 4 at 9 a.m. at the Loudoun County Public Schools Administration Building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn. Supervisors are expected to make a final vote on the budget Tuesday, April 4.