Additional county funds might offer budget help for Loudoun public schools

As Loudoun County supervisors and school leaders face another challenging budget cycle this year, a silver lining has emerged: The county’s real estate portfolio and economy are more robust than had been predicted months ago, potentially increasing the money available to public schools by as much as $30 million.

Even with the additional funds, the school system faces a possible funding gap of tens of millions, but “every bit helps,” said Ben Mays, Loudoun’s chief financial officer.

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This month, School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III proposed a $952 million budget to the School Board for the 2014-15 academic year, a plan that would require more than $87 million in additional county funds.

Supervisors have said they are aiming for a county budget with an equalized tax rate, meaning that the average Loudoun homeowner would have no increase in property tax bills. At an equalized rate — a number that has fluctuated between $1.15 and $1.17 per $100 of assessed value, Mays said — the school system could potentially be left about $50 million to $60 million short of the money necessary for Hatrick’s school spending plan.

Mays said the actual numbers will soon become clearer.

“What that potential gap really is, is going to depend on what our final property value numbers are, and the budget the school board actually adopts,” Mays said. “Hatrick’s proposal is merely his recommendation.”

For the past two budget cycles, the School Board has made substantial cuts to Hatrick’s proposed budgets before the plans were sent to the Board of Supervisors for review. During his presentation this month, Hatrick strongly urged the School Board to consider fully funding his budget, saying that the nationally recognized school system is at “a tipping point” as it balances rising student enrollment with pressure from the county to cut costs.

Loudoun’s property values are expected to be finalized this month, county officials said, with real estate assessments expected to be delivered to homeowners early next month.

The possibility of additional funding for schools is not only because of rising real estate values, Mays said. Local business activity, higher revenue from personal property and sales taxes, and development activity are all higher than officials had originally predicted.

“In general, an improving economy in Loudoun is helping us,” Mays said. “That is the biggest reason why we have additional revenue available now.”

In response to heightened public interest in the budget this year — fueled, in part, by Hatrick’s emphatic budget proposal, the last of his lengthy tenure as Loudoun schools chief before he retires in June — supervisors announced Wednesday that they would release their budget meeting schedule two weeks early. Usually, the board begins the budget process after receiving a budget proposal from County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, who is scheduled to present a budget Feb. 5.

Supervisors review and amend the budget over two months. During that time, there are several public meetings and numerous opportunities for residents to address the board.

Supervisors announced that they had scheduled budget public hearings, work sessions and a joint meeting with the School Board in advance of Hemstreet’s budget presentation.

The School Board will also present its budget plan to supervisors earlier than usual, with the meeting set for 6 p.m. Feb. 18 at the school administration building in Ashburn.

“I am pleased that the School Board will be presenting their request to us earlier this year, and in time for the public to provide input on the School Board’s request,” supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said in a statement. “This is a new addition to the process, and will provide the public with one more opportunity to gain valuable information on the schools budget.”

Hemstreet’s budget presentation is scheduled for 4 p.m. Feb. 5 in the board room of the Loudoun County Government Center, 1 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg.

After the plan is presented, it will be available for review by the public at www.loudoun.gov/budget, at the government center and at county libraries.

Residents will have a chance to comment on the proposed budget at one of three public budget hearings. The hearings will be from 3 to 5 and 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 26 at the government center. If speakers remain, a follow-up hearing will be from 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 27.

A final public hearing is set for 9 a.m. to noon March 1 at the schools administration building in Ashburn.

Mays described Loudoun’s budget process as “one of the most inclusive and transparent processes of which I am aware.”

Supervisors will have work sessions to review and debate the county budget plan after the public hearings, beginning March 3 with a discussion about school spending. The work sessions are scheduled for most Monday and Thursday evenings, with some Saturday sessions possible, through March 24, county officials said.

Residents can also give feedback on the budget during regularly scheduled public hearings and can e-mail comments to supervisors at loudounbudget@
loudoun.gov
, or mail their comments to the Board of Supervisors, 1 Harrison St. SE, fifth floor, Mail Stop 01, Leesburg, Va. 20175. The public can also leave a message on supervisors’ comment line, 703-777-0115.

Supervisors are scheduled to adopt a budget and final tax rates April 2.

 
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