The Loudoun Board of Supervisors met with the county’s General Assembly delegation over plates of lasagna Monday afternoon.
If the senators and delegates didn’t leave the annual legislative lunch with full bellies, they did take home one clear message: The state government shouldn’t require Loudoun to implement full-day kindergarten unless it is willing to pay for it.
That was the one thing County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) stressed as the group reviewed the supervisors’ nine-page list of position statements it prepared for the upcoming General Assembly session. The package includes everything from transportation funding (we need more) to eliminating the $10 cap on dog licenses.
The conversation never made it past the second page.
Expansion of the program became the hot-button issue during the 2015 campaigns, as candidates running for the School Board, Board of Supervisors and state offices almost universally lined up behind pledges to make a full school day available to all kindergarten students.
Loudoun County is one of three school divisions in Virginia that do not offer every kindergartner a full school day. In the past year, the Loudoun school district expanded the program and 1,536 kindergartners, or 34 percent, now attend for a full day.
As part of the schools’ Capital Improvement Program, Superintendent Eric Williams is proposing $16.32 million in kindergarten classroom additions at six Dulles-area schools. That would allow close to 70 percent of the county’s youngest students to receive six-hour school day.
York said he wanted to avoid a situation like last year, when a bill was introduced to require Loudoun to create a plan to implement full-day kindergarten within three years.
“That’s an unfunded mandate,” York said, noting that both the Board of Supervisors and the School Board opposed the legislation.
And although there is significantly more political will—and urgency—to expand the program, York cautioned it was not yet financially feasible to do so.
A key challenge is creating more kindergarten classroom space, but that effort will likely take a back seat to the effort of just keeping up with enrollment. Supervisors are bristling from last month’s surprise request from the school system’s superintendent to fund the construction of five new school—two more than expected last year—next year to accommodate that growth.
The School Board’s request for $257 million in construction funds in FY 2017 bond would fully tap the county’s debt capacity, supervisors have said, requiring plans for other county facilities to be pushed to the back of the line.
Board Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said the county would likely max out its debt cap during the next two years, without tackling the construction needs for expanding kindergarten.
“If you feel the need somehow to force the issue, have at it; just give us the money,” York told state legislators.
Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) said her research found that in states where full-day kindergarten is mandated, localities get extra funding to implement the programs.
Members of the General Assembly delegation suggested some options.
Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), joining the meeting by phone, asked about building larger schools, but York said Loudoun’s elementary schools already are among the largest in the region.
Delegate-elect John Bell (D-87) suggested the county be more creative in its approach. Why not look at day and night shifts for kindergarten classes or having some kindergarteners go to full-day classes for half the school year and then staying home while the other half attends school, he asked.
State Sen. Richard H. Black (R-13) asked if it would help to introduce a budget bill asking the assembly to approve a $100 million grant to Loudoun County and see if legislators in the rest of the state would support it.
Most in the room agreed such an approach would be unlikely to gain traction given the county’s reputation as being among the wealthiest in the nation.