One-time bonus, no layoffs in Prince William school budget proposal

February 2, 2011

Prince William County Superintendent Steven L. Walts proposed Wednesday an $864 million budget that would freeze employee salaries for the fourth consecutive year but prevent layoffs in the district for the first time since 2007. Employees would get a one-time, 1 percent bonus next spring under Walts's proposal.

Like neighboring school districts, Prince William faces a growing student population, but its budget is likely to remain nearly stagnant. The county is bracing for 2,762 additional students while expecting what Dave Cline, associate superintendent for finance and support services, called "a status quo budget."

Still, a slight increase in county and state revenue allowed Walts to propose a $36 million increase over last year's budget, enough to provide funding for ongoing construction projects that will add classrooms to the ballooning district. The district will also hire about 175 additional teachers.

But Prince William's proposed budget lacks pay raises like those envisioned by superintendents in Fairfax and Loudoun counties. In Fairfax, Jack D. Dale plans to recommend a 2 percent cost-of-living increase and a 2 percent step increase for employees. In Loudoun, Edgar B. Hatrick III has proposed asking the county for an additional $55 million to fund 3 percent raises.

Cline noted that the "moderating foreclosure rate" in Prince William's housing market was a boon. In previous years, the foreclosure rate was one of the highest in the region and a drag on revenue for the growing school system.

"While our financial outlook is not what it was prior to the national recession, our school division's projected revenue is better than it has been over the last several years when revenues were continually reduced from the years before," Walts said.

Prince William officials said they are determined to maintain English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and free and reduced-price lunch offerings. About 81,070 students will attend public school in Prince William next year, making it the state's second-largest school district, behind Fairfax County's.

"Even though we're in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, one of every three students qualifies for free or reduced price lunch," Cline said.

The school district is able to keep costs down largely by maintaining the lowest per-student spending in the Washington area, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education. The Prince William school system spends $9,577 per student. Arlington County and Alexandria spend nearly double that.

"They're offering more instructional programs, and their class-size ratios are lower," Cline said. But given the district's continued growth and its protracted budgetary problems, austerity is necessary, officials said.

For their part, county School Board members were pleased that the superintendent did not order another round of layoffs.

"I'm very happy to see that there are no layoffs this year, which in the last few years has put so much pressure on employees," said Betty D. Covington, a School Board member representing Dumfries.

The School Board will vote on Walts's budget in March, and the Board of County Supervisors is scheduled to act on the final budget April 30.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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