With a unanimous vote Tuesday, Loudoun shed its unwelcome label as one of only three counties in the state without universal full-day kindergarten.
Faced with trimming the school system’s budget for next fiscal year by $14.9 million, the School Board was expected to roll back its plans to expand full-day kindergarten countywide or give employees lower-than-hoped-for pay raises. But board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) offered an alternative solution.
To offset the more than $2 million needed to keep pay raises intact and expand full-day kindergarten, Hornberger suggested the board use appropriated but unspent funds from current fiscal year 2018 to purchase $1.64 million in technology upgrades. Another $552,842 in savings came from a budgeting error he and the finance department found that showed the charter schools’ per pupil allotment had been miscalculated. Hornberger said that change does not affect the current allotment for the county’s two charter schools.
The final budget allows for every teacher to get some kind of pay raise. Teachers in the first nine steps on the pay scale—roughly those in the first nine years of their career—would get an average of 3.9 percent; more experienced teachers on steps 17 through 20 would get an average 2.3 percent pay raise, and veteran teachers at the top of the pay schedule would get a 1 percent raise. Those salary schedule adjustments would be in addition to annual salary step increases, which will average 2.2 percent. The across-the-board pay raise for employees not on the teacher salary schedule will be 1.3 percent.
“We only have tonight to make an adjustment to save salaries,” Hornberger said. “If we don’t do that we’re going to be issuing contracts less than what we set forth in our strategic plan, and I think that concerned many of us.”
His suggestions also restored a high school special education dean position, co-curricular stipend raises, a slight increase in teacher assistants’ hours, and a program called Measures of Academic Progress that measures growth in reading, language and math at elementary schools.
Enhancements that the board had planned for but ultimately cut included 10 new elementary school teachers, five of the 22 requested new positions for the Academies of Loudoun, a $2 increase in the per-pupil allotment for instructional materials, and six new custodial positions.
Most board members thanked Hornberger for finding enough savings in the spending plan to keep universal full-day kindergarten and employee raises. A list of cuts recommended by Superintendent Eric Williams last week would have reduced the pay raises.
“Mr. Hornberger, you rock,” Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said. “What he came up with is far better than what I could have come up with. I appreciate your efforts very, very much.”
“Thank you for digging deep and finding these savings so we can continue on with the salary increase,” Beth Huck (At Large) said.
Several board members talked about the long-fought battle to arrive at universal full-day kindergarten, weighing over the past decade swelling enrollment growth, space constraints and community-wide demand for the program. It does, however, come with a caveat: To deliver a full academic day to every kindergartener this fall, many students initially assigned to the overcrowded Creighton’s Corner, Hillside, Lucketts, and Mill Run elementary schools will have to be bussed to neighboring schools that have classroom space.
At the pressing of Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), Williams did say there was a strong possibility that the school system will not be able to maintain universal full-day kindergarten. It will depend on enrollment growth, especially in the Dulles area.
“We anticipate significant challenges to maintaining universal full-day kindergarten,” he said, adding that he will present a report to the board next month that lays out the concerns and possible strategies to maintain the program.
DeKenipp added, addressing the audience, “Be on alert that it is a potential possibility that we may not be able to do this in a sustainable manner.”
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) also shared concerns. She said she’s glad to see the county will achieve countywide full-day kindergarten a few years earlier than expected, but it will come with sacrifices. “The slippery slope that I’m most concerned about is bussing some of our youngest students to alternate locations,” she said.
Before the board’s vote, former kindergarten teacher Lisa Suchland shared similar concerns with the board. She said it’s not worth rushing the program if it requires increased class sizes or taking students out of their home schools. “I agree that it doesn’t seem fair that some are half day and some are full, but I think it is a more of a disservice to have 27 students in a class,” she said.
Three people at the meeting spoke in support of universal full-day kindergarten. Joe Wood said his daughter will attend Mill Run Elementary this fall, one of the schools that does not yet offer a full kindergarten program. “She’s thriving in a preschool. I’d hate to see her lose the strides she’d made in preschool in a half-day program,” he said. “I think it’s a small price to pay to get everyone started on the right foot.”
Two speakers asked the board to retain employee raises. “Please do not reconcile this budget at the expense of teachers and staff,” said Dave Palanzi, president of the employee advocate group Loudoun Education Association.
The school system could see another $2 million in state funding, depending on the budget the General Assembly adopts. Hornberger said that is another option to cover the cost of the $1.6 million in technology upgrades taken out of next fiscal year’s spending plan.
County supervisors set the school system’s total appropriations for next fiscal year’s operating budget at about $1.187 billion, $797.4 million of which is from county tax dollars. That still left the school system with $49.5 million more in local dollars than the current fiscal year, an increase of more than 6 percent. Cutting that tax rate a half cent will save the average taxpayer $23.16 over the next year, or $1.93 a month.