Loudoun supervisors voted Monday night to give property owners a 2-cent cut on their tax rate and the School Board $5.5 million less than it asked for.
After making cuts to the School Board’s budget request, supervisors have tentatively approved a real estate tax rate of $1.125 per $100 of assessed value, 2 cents below the current $1.145 rate. On a home assessed at $400,000, the annual tax bill will be $80 lower at the $1.125 rate than the $1.145 rate.
The board started budget deliberations with a proposed budget that fell only $3.5 million short of the school system’s full $1.1 billion request. At one point in deliberation, after finding millions in excess unspent money in the school budget, the schools were slated to get a fully funded budget request for the first time in years, but supervisors voted Monday night to cut millions from that request.
Although Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) had earlier said he would like to get the tax rate to $1.125, the motion to do so came from Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge). It does so in part by taking $1 million of the current fiscal year’s $40 million in unallocated funds and sending it to next year’s budget. It also transfers an additional million dollars from unspent school capital funds to buy new school buses .
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) made an impassioned attempt to send an additional $1.5 million from the fund balance to pay for textbooks, but that idea fell flat, supported only by supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling). Other supervisors have long argued that textbooks should come from the School Board’s yearly operating budget, rather than be treated as a one-time expenses.
“I’m hearing a lot of things about what the School Board should be doing, I’m hearing a lot of criticizing, slapping the hand, punishing the School Board,” Randall said. “I could care less about punishing or rewarding the School Board. Our kids need books. Their books are old and falling apart.”
Other supervisors argued that there was room in the School Board’s budget for books. Buffington pointed out that once money is transferred to the schools, supervisors have no control over how the School Board spends it.
“I would just remind everybody that we’re not having a discussion about whether or not we’re going to fund these textbooks,” Buffington said. “I think it’s how we would fund textbooks. I mean, either way, my proposal didn’t call to slash the textbooks out of there.”
Randall and Umstattd also opposed cutting the School Board’s funding request generally. Umstattd said overcrowding is a problem almost everywhere in the county.
“When my daughter went through Catoctin Elementary, we thought we were overcrowded at over 500 students,” Umstattd said. “Now, they are trying to accommodate over 700 students at this school, and they have crammed desks in everywhere that they can find, so we’re not managing to keep our class sizes down, we’re not managing to keep our schools uncrowded, there’s just a whole litany of arguments against this, I think, grave reduction in what we are proposing to send to the schools.”
Randall said supervisors ignore their constituents during budget talks, repeating an argument she made during last year’s budget talks. Very few public hearing speakers asked for a lower tax rate; an overwhelming number of people asked for increased spending. Randall said a majority of the people who contacted her were asking to fully fund the school budget request.
“They came in here in big numbers, they sent letters, they did all that, and they have said it doesn’t matter anyway,” Randall said. “And you know what, we have proven them right. If the voice of the people matters, the voice of the people matters, and the voice of the people has not said get down to $1.125.”
But Republican supervisors said they were confident the budget would provide for the schools’ needs. Meyer argued the percentage increase in the school budget has outpaced enrollment growth.
“This is actually an 8 and a half percent increase in the LCPS budget,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “So for context, last year was seven, the year before that was 7.7, the year before that was 8, so this was the largest we’ve had for quite some time.
“My kids are in the LCPS,” Buffington said. “I am 100 percent confident that I am not hurting my kids with this. I am helping my kids with this.”
The motion to transfer $1 million of unspent school capital project funds to school buses won unanimous approval, as did the motion to send $1 million from the current budget’s fund balance. The motion to cut the LCPS local tax funding allocation by $5.5 million was approved 6-3, with Randall, Umstattd, and Saines opposed.
In total, supervisors have also added $3.1 million to the county government side of County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed budget, although they recouped $2.2 million from additional state revenues and unspent money in the school budget. On balance, the $3 million in additions to the county operating budget cost the county only $891,652. No cuts were made from those additions to the county budget to achieve the tax rate cut, except for $10,000 from the Clerk of Court’s overtime fund, $4,684 for a salary increase for planning commissioners, and $110,070 for a transportation public information officer.
Supervisors will take a final, formal vote on the budget and tax rate April 4.