Funding for schools, nonprofit groups are top issues at Loudoun budget hearings

March 4, 2013

At the first public hearings addressing the fiscal 2014 budget plan, scores of Loudoun County residents urged the Board of Supervisors to keep property tax rates steady and avoid cutting funds for public schools and nonprofit organizations.

Representatives and supporters of nonprofit groups — including Loudoun Interfaith Relief and Brain Injury Services, both targeted for possible 20 percent reductions in funding — dominated the first of two public hearings Wednesday. Many speakers urged supervisors to remember that economic challenges only heighten the community’s need for services provided by local nonprofit groups.

“Today, due to the tremendous instability of the economy, our families are facing huge economic challenges, and quite frankly, the face of hunger has changed,” said Bonnie Inman, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief. “Many of these people never thought they would be in an emergency food pantry.”

Early last month, Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet presented supervisors with a proposed $1.8 billion budget for fiscal 2014. The plan aimed to preserve core government services and boost funding priorities, such as local transportation and economic development efforts. But it also left the county school system potentially facing an $18 million shortfall.

Supervisors had directed Hemstreet to prepare a fiscal plan based on an equalized real property tax rate, meaning that average taxpayers would see no change in their bills. Hemstreet had earlier told supervisors that the advertised rate of $1.23 per $100 of assessed value, which was previously calculated to be the equalized rate, would instead result in an additional $15 million to $20 million in local tax revenue. Taxpayers would be likely to see an increase of about 1 percent on their tax bills, Hemstreet said.

As a result, the board faces a choice: to use the unanticipated money to fully fund the School Board’s proposed $859.7 million budget or to offer county residents a reduced tax rate.

A few speakers at the afternoon hearing urged the board to approve the county School Board’s proposed budget without implementing further cuts.

Michele Copeland of Leesburg, parent of a second-grader, said she and her husband came to Loudoun for the quality of the public schools. Her son’s Spanish language program was cut in last year’s budget cycle, she said.

“I’m worried about the programs that are in our public schools right now if you don’t choose to fund the school budget fully,” she said. “I worry what the School Board is going to decide to do.”

Copeland’s appeal for a fully funded school system budget was repeated by a much larger crowd at the second hearing Wednesday evening. The board room of the county government center was filled with residents and school employees, who were dressed in red to show support for the schools. Many of the school employees first gathered outside the government center, in a demonstration organized by the Loudoun Education Association.

A parade of speakers implored county leaders to hold to the advertised tax rate and avoid further cuts to a school system that is struggling with rapidly rising enrollment.

Nikki McMahon, whose child attends Legacy Elementary in Brambleton, told the board she feared that talented educators would leave Loudoun if further cuts were implemented. Her school’s staff is overworked and underpaid as it is, she said.

“We will start to lose our awesome teachers and administrators we currently have,” McMahon said. “This county is growing way too fast as we all know, but in a negative way in my opinion.”

Erin O’Dore, a Loudoun teacher, said she needed to take a second job to afford to live in the county because she had not received a raise in years.

“Have you ever been in a relationship where you are constantly giving and giving . . . yet you get nothing in return?” she asked. “Sadly, this is what the past six years have felt like working in Loudoun County. And you have to ask yourself, maybe it’s time to move on.”

Even the School Board’s proposed budget left much to be desired, said Jeffrey Dunn, a teacher at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville. He noted that Loudoun is the only jurisdiction in the area not to offer full-day kindergarten, and pointed to swelling class sizes as an example of the challenges the system faces.

“We have a long day to go to provide a first-class school system,” he said.

Supervisors will have budget work sessions this month, dates for which will be posted on www.loudoun.gov/mastercalendar. The board is scheduled to vote on a budget for fiscal 2014 on April 3, county officials said.

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