Loudoun School Board members and superintendent Scott Ziegler formally presented their budget request to the Board of Supervisors Thursday, fielding the first of what will likely be many questions from the county board facing a $1.08 billion request and tightening tax revenues.
Ziegler defended the $75 million increase over last year’s county funding request even as school enrollment still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. He pointed to a 5% average salary increase for teachers, a requirement to attract new state funding; high inflation; a health insurance rate increase; a new school opening, Elaine E. Thompson Elementary School; and a growing population of students who need additional supports, such as English language learners or students with individualized education plans.
The school division also hopes to push ahead with a number of new programs, such as bringing an International Baccalaureate program to Loudoun, hiring more full-time substitute teachers to address difficulties findings substitutes, placing a nurse in every school, making 24/7 online therapy available to students and $2.3 million in additional funding for performing arts.
And County Chair Phyllis J. Randall pointed out that the other major source of school system funding, the General Assembly, may not pass a budget by the time the county adopts its own.
She also attacked School Board members over their budget reconciliation last year, particularly the decision not to end athletic fees after the Board of Supervisors added more than $800,000 into the school budget with the intention to do so. The Board of Supervisors allocates funding to the school system, but the School Board decides how that money is spent. She told School Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) he owed Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian), who pushed for that funding, an apology for his comments last year that the Board of Supervisors does not dictate how school funding is spent.
Briskman reiterated her push to end those kinds of fees.
“All of those fees create inequities. Those fees, when I had two kids in high school, were $150 per kid per sport per season. So that was $300 out of the family budget every season if you had two kids playing a sport,” she said. And she criticized the decision to instead do away with parking fees: “You’re eliminating a fee for families that can actually afford cars and car insurance, so I don’t know how that’s helping out with inequity.”
Randall also criticized the School Board’s $4.5 million year-end fund balance. Last year the Board of Supervisors saw an $80 million fund balance.
This year the Board of Supervisors is unlikely to fund the school system’s full request, already facing an effective real estate tax hike because of skyrocketing property values. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s budget proposal, the starting point for supervisors’ budget deliberations, is $21.5 million short of the School Board request. That will mean after supervisors pass their budget in early April, the School Board will need to trim their plans down to fit the funding.
“The tax bill is going to be very big even with the [school request] gap that we have, and that means that we do need to give scrutiny to every part of the budget—certainly not just schools, but on the county side as well, and at least be able to justify to our constituents why that tax bill is going to go up,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau.
Communication between the two boards and the push-pull of funding and spending authorities frame almost every annual budget deliberations.
“I feel like we come, we listen to the presentation and then we’re sort of told ‘we don’t want you to do a line-by-line analysis of our budget,’ to which I say, ‘then why am I even seeing it?’” Letourneau said. “You know, I don’t want to just give you a number. I want to base my decision making on something.”
Randall and School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said much of that communication happens on an individual basis, such as between School Board members and supervisors from the same district.
“I communicate very well with Mr. Letourneau. He’s my district supervisor. And I think that those engagements are very important because I think ultimately, if all of us, all the school board members have that kind of relationship with their supervisors, then we work together as a team outside of the ring here, and I think that’s where things are most productive,” Morse said after the meeting. “I don’t think that this environment is necessarily conducive to the discussions that that Matt and I have, or that Phyllis would have with another board member.”
The Board of Supervisors will hold three public input session on the budget. Those will be Thursday, Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the county government center in Leesburg, and Saturday, Feb. 26 at 9 a.m. in the school administration building in Broadlands. To sign up in advance for a speaking slot, call 703-777-0204.
Comment may also be emailed to email@example.com, left as a voicemail on the Board of Supervisors’ Comment Line at 703-777-0115, or left on the county government’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Supervisors will hold their first work session on the Fiscal Year 2023 budget Feb. 28 at 6 p.m., with plans to pass a budget April 5, 2022. More information is also online at loudoun.gov/budget.