A week ahead of a vote to adopt the operating budget for the county school system, Loudoun’s School Board heard from a half dozen community members at a public hearing Thursday.
It was the first hearing on the fiscal year 2019 budget since Superintendent Eric Williams unveiled the $1.202 billion proposal two weeks ago. The spending plan asks for an 8 percent increase in funds over the current fiscal year. Williams has said more money is needed to open three new schools, serve an additional 1,500 students, provide employees raises, improve school safety, and expand full-day kindergarten.
Three of the six people who stepped to the mic to address the board are board members of the Loudoun Education Association, an employee advocate group with about 3,400 members.
LEA President David Palanzi told the board there are many items to applaud in the budget and a few areas of concern.
“We are concerned about the slow pace of improvements to the classified pay scale,” he said. “Additionally, we are troubled by the increasing cost of health insurance, which is eroding any gain in pay.”
The association launched a campaign it called A Push for A Living Wage last month advocating raises for school support staff, such as custodians, teacher assistants and secretaries. On health insurance, the superintendent’s budget calls for employees on the two most popular insurance plans, the Open Access Plan and Point of Service plan, to see a 5.8 percent premium increase. The employer, Loudoun County Public Schools, will experience the same increase to cover rising health care costs.
Sandy Sullivan, LEA’s vice president and a third-grade teacher at Legacy Elementary, thanked Williams for prioritizing salary step increases for employees and targeting money toward additional staff to keep class sizes level. She’s seen the difference in her classroom, which had 25 students last year and 23 this year.
“I will tell you the increased space alone with having two less kids increased the flow in the classroom, and it benefits every student because I’m able to work with them more effectively,” Sullivan said.
Parent Kelly Huff Snyder thanked Williams and the board for dedicating more money to specialized reading instruction.
“I hope you can continue this and expand it so every teacher who wants to do it can,” she said. “I can tell you without a doubt that if my son, who is now a fifth-grader, had this early on, we would absolutely not need an [Individualized Education Plan] or special education help.”
The School Board wrapped up its final work session Thursday, and is scheduled to adopt the budget Feb. 1.
In an interview with Loudoun Now, Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said he appreciates the work staff put in to the budget, knowing that they’re not asking for everything they’d like. But he said he has some reservations about the new initiatives that the board was not given a heads up about, such as ramping up security staffing and spending $3.2 million to add more counselors, social workers and psychologists to the middle schools.
“When initiatives are briefed to the board ahead of the budget process, it allows us to probe into the details and understand the roll out, strategic impact to staffing and other resources, and alignment with the board’s strategic plan,” Morse added.
He thinks there is support among board members for the bulk of the spending plan, including employee raises, staffing growth based on student enrollment, expanding full-day kindergarten, and increasing services associated with an acceleration of growth in the at-risk population. The superintendent is projecting that the number of students needing English language services next year will grow by 7.5 percent, or 687 students, and the number of special education students will grow by 4.3 percent, or 424 students.
“The percentage increase of special needs students and English Language Learners far outpaces the general enrollment growth,” Morse said, “and this has a significant impact in the increase in funding requested by the superintendent.”