Members of the Board of supervisors got their first look at the $1.5 billion school division budget for Fiscal Year 2022 on Monday night and raised some of the same questions the School Board’s critics have been asking over the past year.
The School Board adopted its budget Feb. 2. It envisions a return to normal operations next fall, along with a post-COVID enrollment bounce back and expanded distance learning opportunities.
During the initial round of questioning with Interim Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler and School Board members, supervisors asked for more details on how the current year’s $1.395 billion was spent and for details on savings generated because campuses were largely shut down during most of the year; how much federal aid was received, how was it used and how much is left to spend; for more information on how virtual learning options could continue for students who thrive in that environment; and whether the adopted package of staff raises and other compensation increases is out of step with the economic conditions.
While budget talks will continue over the next month, Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn) announced he plans to propose the Board of Supervisors withhold 10% of the school allocation until administrators can commit to providing a full return to class next fall.
School Board members warned against that strategy. They said all the planning so far is based on a return to normal in-person learning, but they can’t predict what the public health situation will when classes gear up in August. Currently, state and federal guidance to maintain physical distancing in classrooms serves as the greatest hurdle to bringing schools back to full capacity. That recommendation hasn’t changed as public health leaders in recent weeks stepped up the push for schools across the county to return to some level of in-person learning.
School Board Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian) warned that the threat of holding back money would create too much uncertainty, undermine recruiting and retention efforts and could result in layoffs. Jeff Morse (Dulles), the board’s most vocal proponent of returning students to classrooms, said such an approach could undermine efforts to resume full-time classes. The funding, he said, would be needed to provide student extra support with special summer offerings and to hire the educators needed for the fall.
While school leaders are moving forward with plans to return full time, Morse noted that guidance from public health leaders has changed frequently over the past year. “We don’t know what it is going to look like in September,” he said.
Another early friction point in the budget talks is the School Board’s adopted enrollment projections—numbers that drive the staffing requirements that make up the largest part of the budget.
School Board members had similar questions after then-superintendent Eric Williams initially proposed a budget based on having 6,115 more students than were enrolled last September. This year, schools opened with 2,671 fewer students than the previous year, leaving the division with more than 4,000 fewer students than expected in the budget. Williams projected those students would return and enrollment would grow beyond last year’s projections by another 1,864, to a total enrollment of 85,755.
Although administrators have expressed confidence in those figures, the School Board last week voted to roll back enrollment projections by 2%.Planning for an enrollment of 85,867 students saved $6.4 million and reduced the number of new hires needed by 65.8 full-time equivalent positions.
Some supervisors questioned whether that projection remains too high
Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) said a survey of his constituents this week showed a high level of dissatisfaction with the current school year and strong support for withholding funding until the enrollment level is known.
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet will introduce his proposed county budget, which includes the school system’s allocation, on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
State Candidates Flock to Loudoun
Loudoun’s School Board wound up in national headlines after video of parent Brandon Michon screaming at them during a meeting was picked up online and on television—bringing statewide Republican candidates rushing into Loudoun to campaign outside local government meetings.Michon has become a celebrity among Republicans and was among the featured attendees during a small rally outside the county government center during the Monday meeting. The “#FigureItOut Rally,” named for one of the statements Michon shouted at the School Board, attracted a few dozen people including TV crews and statewide Republican primary candidates including gubernatorial candidates Pete Snyder, Kirk Cox, and Sergio de la Peña; Attorney General candidate Jason Miyares; and campaigners for other candidates. In Snyder’s case,it is the second time he has campaigned outside a Loudoun School Board meeting.