The Loudoun County School Board completed its 30th day in office Thursday night with one final round of budget briefings. On Tuesday night, members will take the first votes to put their stamp on the fiscal year 2021 spending plan proposed by Superintendent Eric Williams.
On Jan. 9, Williams proposed a $1.395 billion FY 2021 operating budget that calls for a 10.8 percent increase in local tax funding. The proposal envisions the creation of 521.25 additional full-time equivalent positions—bringing the school division’s staffing to a total of 12,320—and $113.6 million in additional spending.
Since that presentation, the School Board—with seven of the nine members in their first month of service—has held twice-weekly meetings to receive detailed briefings about each department and has submitted more than 180 formal questions for the staff to research.
During Thursday’s session, members were briefed on the procedures they’ll use on Tuesday to formally adopt the budget. School Board Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said that some past boards have completed the work in about an hour and other debates have dragged through midnight.
Members were preparing for the possibility of a marathon session next week.
Over the past five years, board have increased the superintendent’s local funding request by more than $600,000 or cut the request by more than $200,000.
The biggest chunk of Williams’ proposed budget deals with raises for all staff members. Nearly half of the expense increase would be used to boost staff salaries. For teachers, salaries are expected to increase between $3,726 and $8,029, with an overall average increase of $5,445 for the division’s 6,592 teachers, according to his presentation.
Jeff Morse (Dulles) last night questioned whether that level of increase was practical.
He noted that Fairfax County’s proposed school budget eyes 5.8 percent spending increase and about 3.5 percent pay increases for teachers, while the region’s consumer price increase came in at about 1.5 percent. In contrast, he said Williams is seeking an 8.9 percent overall increase, with teacher compensation increases—a combination of market adjustments, step increases and classification reviews—averaging more than 7 percent.
Morse raised concerns that the proposal would result in raises as high as 16 percent for some teachers and some getting 25 percent raises over just two years.
“I think we’re missing the mark. I think we’ve overshot,” he said.
Instead, Morse asked about the impact of capping pay raises at 5 percent or 6 percent.
According to a response provided by the staff, a 5 percent cap could reduce the requested budget increase by $33.1 million, and a 6 percent cap would save $26.7 million.
Morse suggested applying in a way that would provide the same amount of increase—in the range of $4,200—to each teacher, resulting in higher percentage raises at the lower end of the pay scale and smaller percentage increases for senior teachers. Even at a 7 percent cap, the budget request could be reduced by $20 million, but leave $18 million available for raises, he said. And, Morse said, Loudoun’s teachers would still get higher raises than are proposed in Fairfax County.
“Every teacher should be getting a substantial pay raise. I just don’t think that 16 percent for any teacher is the solution,” he said.
Williams warned that approach could undermine a number of School Board’s strategic goals to improve consistency in the pay scales, implement a classification review, and ensure regional competitiveness. He said hundreds of hours had gone into developing the salary plan and it would be difficult to come up with an alternate plan to implement a raise cap before Tuesday.
While the personnel pay raises represent the largest budget challenge, School Board members expressed some frustration with their inability to address some of their individual priorities in the budget.
Denise Corbo (At Large) said she was disappointed to not have a plan to put a desktop computer in every classroom, one of her campaign priorities based on her experience as a long-time Loudoun teacher.
Williams said Corbo’s concern is just part of having to adopt a budget only five weeks after taking office, not leaving enough time to investigate member’s new proposals.
“I know the solution. I have discussed the solution, but I don’t think there has been a clear solution from administration,” she said.
The staff noted that such a project would more complex than simply purchasing consumer-grade computers for a couple of hundred dollars apiece from a big-box retailer, but would work to have an answer prepared before Tuesday’s vote.
John Beatty (Catoctin) agreed that it will be difficult for new members to put much of their stamp in this year’s budget work. “This budget was set in motion six months ago,” he said.
“I sense your frustration. This is not our budget,” Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) agreed, noting that his push for more green buildings and electric buses, for example, would pick up when work begins on the FY 2022 budget in July.
But first there will be Tuesday’s vote.
“It’s our first year together. There’s going to be a lot of discussion,” Morse said.
“Everybody has their work cut out for them. I will propose, as chair, that we take it as slowly as we need to so we can be thoughtful and respectful of each other,” Sheridan said.