‘Every Student Counts’: Adopted School Budget Targets Equity

The Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday made the final tweaks to the spending plan recommended by Superintendent Eric Williams, adopting an operating budget for next fiscal year totaling $1.284 billion.

The board added roughly $4 million to Williams’ proposal, but offset the additions by realizing $4.3 million in savings by adding a health insurance holiday, which will save both employees and the school system money. During that time, instead of paying into health insurance, that money will come from the school system’s insurance fund reserve, which Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said is “extremely healthy.”

Board members described many of their additions to the budget as efforts to improve the school system’s equity practices—from hiring a more diverse workforce and providing employees cultural competency training, to identifying more minority students for gifted and specialty programs.

The most debated line item of the night was to create a position tasked with overseeing equity issues throughout the school system. Board members voted to add $200,000 to the budget for that new position, with the new employee’s specific tasks and who he or she would report to to be determined later. The new position is in addition to the $100,000 Williams had already requested to hire an equity and cultural competence specialist.

Joy Maloney (Broad Run) was the lone dissenting vote on creating the position; she instead advocated a director-level equity position that would report to the superintendent.

Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said an administration position charged with improving equity was long overdue—she requested one six years ago. “This isn’t just about race. It’s about every student and whatever their challenge is,” she said. “It’s a first step, it’s a small step, and it is a needed step.”

That additional position came after nine people approached the board during the meeting’s public input session asking that the board create a department of equity and cultural competence. Several noted that black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in the county’s gifted programs, yet they are disproportionately suspended.

Robin Burke said her son, a straight-A student, was not accepted into an Academies of Loudoun program and school leaders would not give a reason or explain the selection process. “The admissions process is disjointed, unfair and demonstrates a clear example of institutional racism,” said Burke, adding that a department of equity and cultural competence could add a level of accountability.

Every board member spoke in support of creating an equity task force—likely made up of staff members, parents and outside experts—which would be charged with providing a thorough review of the school system’s equity practices. Chris Croll (Catoctin) was among the members who suggested that task force also help define the specifics of that new position.

The board also voted unanimously to add $124,216 to the budget for a new position to oversee the EDGE Academy, an after-school program that targets elementary students from underrepresented populations—such as those from low-income families or racial minorities—who have a knack for science, math and technology but don’t typically have access to enrichment programs to hone those skills.

“I think we all recognize that we need to do a better job of setting our minority students up for academic success,” said Croll, who made the motion. “I think we have programs already in place that need boots on the ground to implement and expand.”

Board members all agreed to reduce the average elementary teacher-student ratio by one to 22:1, at a cost of $3,244,723. Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said Loudoun has the highest elementary class size in Northern Virginia.

In a split vote, and after a lengthy, heated discussion, the board voted to add roughly $3 million to its bottom line to reduce the average high school class size by 0.5 students, from 24.2 to 23.7. Hornberger, who made the motion, said the additional money will help ensure high schools do not have to de-staff over the next few years when there’s an enrollment dip.

Williams explained that enrollment is projected to go down at almost every high school in the county next year, some by as many as more than 300 students, which was news to many of the board members. Morse said it was frustrating to get the information that administrators had since September just minutes before the board voted to adopt a budget.

In a narrow 5-4 vote, the board also added another six high school teachers, only to be used on an as-needed basis if enrollment is greater than projected.

Other additions made to the budget include another 1 percent across-the-board pay raise to all employees on the classified pay scale for a cost of $1.9 million; increasing the salary raises Williams’ had in mind for social workers to make them comparable to the salary bump psychologists will receive for a total cost of $666,666; and a cafeteria worker for Lincoln Elementary for a cost of $40,662.

Croll and Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said the fact that the school’s meals are made at Loudoun Valley High School and transported to Lincoln each day is an equity concern. “This is another example of every student counts,” Croll said.

Turgeon added, “I think it’s petty and I think we need to fix it now … if every student counts.”

Morse said when it comes to the small schools, it’s hard to know where to draw the line with providing parents and students with equal services. He noted that the cafeteria position equates to an additional $450 per student at that school. “If one student wanted Latin 5, would we hire a teacher to teach Latin 5?” the chairman asked.

At Morse’s request, the board voted 5-4 to add $90,000 to pay for a part-time staff assistant for any board member who wants one. “I know several school board members have said they don’t need support staff. I do. I think my productivity could be a lot better, and the communication with my constituencies could be a lot better,” Morse said.

The majority of the board agreed to delete a $154,000 line item Williams requested that would create a specialty arts design school. Several board members said they like the idea, but want a committee of the board to get a chance to research it and get community buy-in.

“This is not the time for it,” said Rose, who made the motion to delete it. “But we still need to do a better job with the programs on our books, such as project-based learning, before we add another thing.”

When the superintendent first presented his spending plan to the School Board last month, he said it would require roughly $76.3 million more in county dollars and another $21.8 million in state funding next fiscal year. He told the board that the fiscal guidance the county Board of Supervisors gave to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet would actually cover his funding request. Hemstreet is drafting the county budget at the equalized tax rate, the rate at which the average Loudoun homeowner pays the same real estate tax dollar amount despite rising property values.

But supervisors have cautioned school leaders that they may earmark more county tax dollars for the county government this year, with the goal of increasing staffing and improving county employees’ pay.

The School Board will present its adopted budget to the Board of Supervisors as a formal funding request Monday.

dnadler@loudounnow.com
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