Hatrick presents $952 million Loudoun County schools budget

At his final budget presentation before the Loudoun County School Board on Tuesday night, outgoing School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III proposed a plan totaling more than $952 million for the 2014-15 school year and issued a blunt warning about the effects of cost-cutting, as the county struggles to keep pace with rising enrollment, deferred expenditures and developing technology.

Hatrick’s proposal for fiscal 2015 would increase funding to the schools by more than $108 million over the previous budget, requiring about $87 million in additional county funding. The request sets the stage for a difficult battle with county supervisors, who have requested a budget that would not raise property tax rates, a prospect that would leave a funding gap of more than $80 million for county schools.

The spending plan is the 23rd budget that Hatrick — who will retire in June — has presented during his decades-long tenure as the head of the Loudoun public schools, a period in which the school system has seen exponential growth and received national recognition for academic achievement. The student population has swelled from 15,000 pupils in 1991 to a projected enrollment of more than 73,000 for the 2014-15 academic year, according to school officials.

At the budget presentation, Hatrick echoed the sentiments he expressed in an open letter published in local media last month, in which he warned that the school system had reached “a tipping point” in its ability to meet the demands of rising enrollment while continuing to be among the best school systems in the country.

The cost of funding a strong education system could be viewed as either “a current burden or future investment,” Hatrick said Tuesday. “Whatever the view, I hope that this year, we as the community can have a serious conversation about the future we want to fund. We have delayed and deferred too much in recent years.”

For the past two budget cycles, Hatrick has seen both the School Board and the county Board of Supervisors make millions of dollars in cuts to his proposed spending plans. The all-Republican Board of Supervisors has emphasized members’ desire to uphold campaign promises of fiscal responsibility and lower property taxes. Supervisors said they expect the school system to find “efficiencies” to reduce spending.

Hatrick said Tuesday that his proposed budget would result in a cost-per-pupil of $12,735, which is still lower than the county’s cost-per-pupil spending in the past, he said, and lower than the cost-per-pupil spending in neighboring Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties school systems.

“The efficiency of [Loudoun schools] is always called into question, as it should be,” Hatrick said. “But we are efficient.”

Hatrick seeks an increase of nearly $32 million for school employee compensation to help attract and retain talented teachers who might otherwise be lured to school systems that offer better salaries. “Good people cost money,” he said.

The budget also seeks an additional $13 million for system-wide technology upgrades, including computer maintenance, new software and communications equipment.

Throughout his presentation, Hatrick strongly emphasized that the budget was based on needs rather than superfluous spending, offering stark examples of what cost-cutting would mean for the schools. Even if the system cut staffing down to state-mandated levels, he said, which would involve eliminating as many as 1,140 full-time positions, the cost savings would be about $63 million, still leaving a significant funding gap between the school system budget and the instructions from county supervisors.

No school system in Virginia operates strictly at state-mandated staffing levels, Hatrick later said. “We are certainly not recommending it.”

Hatrick urged the board and the community to focus on the purpose of the budget, which was designed “to best serve the children of Loudoun County,” he said.

“If, in the coming weeks, we can concentrate on that, what truly serves our children and through them our future, then we will arrive at a budget that is fair for all Loudoun citizens,” he said. “A great deal of care has gone into the construction of this budget, and I would ask that an equal amount of care be given to its consideration by this board, by the Board of Supervisors, and by the community.”

The School Board will hold its first budget work session Thursday. Public hearings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Jan. 21 at the School Administration Building in Ashburn. The School Board is expected to adopt a budget Jan. 23. It will then go before the Board of Supervisors for review.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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