Interim Superintendent Scott Zeigler on Thursday presented the School Board with a proposed $1.5 billion FY 2022 school budget that envisions a return to classroom normalcy as well as an expansion of online learning programs.
The budget seeks $187.5 million and the hiring of 587.5 fulltime equivalent employees above the adopted FY 2021 budget.
However, the budget the School Board adopted last April was stripped of $60 million and more than 200 staff positions as county supervisors established a $100 million reserve at the outset of the pandemic. The county board already has voted to release half of that holdback—money that primarily will be used to provide raises for county and school workers. The remainder of the escrowed funds are expected to be released before the end of the fiscal year, June 30.
When compared with the pre-pandemic budget, the proposed school spending plan requires a 9.3% funding increase. It would require $101.6 million more in local tax funding, a 10.7% increase.
As proposed, the plan would require the largest percentage of local funding of any budget since FY 2009—69.9%. Over the past 10 years, local funding on average has provided 66.8% of school funding.
If the Board of Supervisors in April adopts an equalized tax rate—one that on average keeps property owners’ tax bills level—schools expect to face a $7 million shortfall. If supervisors add one cent to that tax rate, the shortfall falls to $1.4 million, according to information provided to the School Board on Thursday.
Key elements of the proposed budget include a 3.5% pay hike for school employees at a cost of $63.3 million, an expansion of summer school programs to support students who have fallen behind during the school closures, and a greater investment in the Virtual Loudoun online classroom platform for students who have performed better virtually. The budget also includes $3 million and 13 new staff positions that would be required if the School Board opts to authorize collective bargaining with employee unions, an option authorized by the General Assembly starting this year.
The School Board will dive more deeply into the spending proposal during five planned work sessions before a scheduled adoption vote Feb. 2.
Questions raised by School Board members during Thursday’s presentation focused on the staff’s enrollment projections.
The current budget was based on expectations of 85,755 students. But during the pandemic and the pivot to primarily distance learning, only 81,500 students enrolled—more than 2,250 fewer students than last year.
The proposed budget is based on an enrollment of 87,600 students—assuming the 1,400 kindergarteners whose parents postponed their entry into the system and the families who opted for homeschooling will return along with growth from the arrival of new families.
Zeigler said the staff is very confident in the projections.
School Board members weren’t so sure.
Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) described the enrollment projections as optimistic and said he believes it could take two or three years to completely rebound from the pandemic.
Beth Barts (Leesburg) said she does not expect families with elementary school students who opted for home school this year to return in large numbers.
John Beatty (Catoctin) also raised doubts about a quick enrollment bounce back.
Enrollment levels are not just important to determine staffing levels, but also determines how much funding is allocated by the state government.
The School Board will begin its detailed budget review on Tuesday.