Hatrick’s warning, criticism heighten tensions over Loudoun school budget

The Loudoun County fiscal 2015 budget process began and ended with a warning.

As outgoing Loudoun County School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III prepared in December for his final budget season after more than 20 years as the leader of one of the region’s fastest-growing school systems, he wrote an open letter in which he said that the school system was at a critical “tipping point” and that it urgently needed additional funding to keep pace with Loudoun’s population growth.

This month, after a contentious months-long process that culminated in the adoption of a $1.9 billion county budget — a spending plan that leaves the school system nearly $38 million short of its $949 million request — Hatrick expressed criticism of county leaders and reiterated a bleak prognosis for the school system’s future without sufficient funding.

“I think everybody is feeling the tension of this time that we’re in now, trying to close one of the largest gaps between a School Board adopted budget and its appropriation from the Board of Supervisors that I have seen in my 471 / 2 years in this school system,” Hatrick said at an April 8 School Board meeting.

He went on to address county residents, many of whom have voiced frustration about the possible cuts to school system programs, services and jobs as a result of the funding gap.

“They need to understand that this is not of the School Board’s making,” he said. “This is an artificial crisis created by a Board of Supervisors that willfully chose not to listen to the public, not to listen to the School Board, about the funding that is needed for next year for this school system.”

Without change, the problems will only get worse, he cautioned.

“I am sad to say that if we continue in the vein that we’ve been in for the past two years, and now the third year, you can look forward to an even worse budget year next year, and even more diminution of services — not at the hands of the School Board, but at the hands of the Board of Supervisors,” he said. “They must be held accountable for what they are doing to public education in Loudoun County.”

Hatrick’s unscheduled remarks drew applause from the audience in the county board room, and silence from School Board members, who carried on with the agenda.

But his comments sparked a pointed social media discussion among county officials and community members. On the county Republican Committee’s Facebook page, Chad Campbell — a former staff aide and campaign manager for Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) — assailed Hatrick’s statement and demanded that conservative members of the School Board explain whether or not they agreed with the superintendent’s words.

“I really hope that our School Board members, who claim to be conservatives, Republicans and supporters of the tea party, do not live in Hatrick’s alternative universe of ‘crisis,’ where an 8 percent budget increase is underfunding a 3 percent increase in student population,” Campbell wrote in the post.

York was the first to respond: “Chad, [Hatrick] has blown a fuse! Nearly $70 million more in revenue, one of (if not the) single largest increases to the schools budget from the prior year,” the board chairman wrote. “He’s just shocked we did not fund his over inflated proposed budget . . . incredible the insanity from the schools!”

Several School Board members joined the discussion thread and quickly distanced themselves from Hatrick’s words.

“No, this is not a crisis. We are faced with making some difficult decisions, but that’s why we get paid the big bucks,” said School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg). “If I agreed with the content and tone of what Dr. Hatrick said, I would have said it myself.”

Two other School Board members also expressed disapproval.

“I do not endorse the statement and felt it was completely out of line,” said board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian). “We had no idea he would make those comments.”

Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said she “vehemently” disagreed with Hatrick’s comments.

The uproar also prompted an April 10 memo addressed to the Board of Supervisors by Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet, responding to questions from county leaders about the veracity of Hatrick’s remarks.

Hemstreet said that although the $37.7 million funding gap “is a large number,” it represented only a 4 percent difference between the appropriation requested by the School Board and that given by supervisors.

The School Board previously faced funding shortfalls of $48.7 million in 2009 and $54.4 million in 2011, Hemstreet said, rebutting Hatrick’s claim that this year’s cuts are the most substantial the school system has had to make.

“It does not appear that this is the largest gap that the School Board has had to address during reconciliation,” he said.

The memo also questioned the School Board’s decision to send notifications to all licensed school staff members — mostly teachers — alerting them to a possible workforce reduction as School Board members looked for ways to close the funding gap.

The notifications are a required step if the School Board intends to consider possible staffing cuts, although no decisions have been made, officials said.

But county officials have questioned the School Board’s potential “cut list,” which some supervisors have said is intended to agitate and alarm the public. Hemstreet’s memo suggested that the notifications about workforce reductions were also unnecessary at this point.

“Based on the proposals under consideration by the School Board . . . it would appear implausible that the vast majority of the school employees receiving notices would actually be at risk,” he said. “From the perspective of appropriate management practice, as county staff, we would have recommended waiting another week for the board to be more specific in deliberations and issued targeted notices once it was more clear as to what was actually under serious consideration.”

School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger declined to comment on the discussion surrounding Hatrick’s remarks.

“I am focused on moving forward with the task before us in reconciling our budget with the funding that is being made available,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That is more than enough of a task to dedicate my attention and best efforts.”

Hatrick also declined to comment.

The School Board plans to adopt a reconciled budget by the end of the month, school officials have said.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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