Loudoun School Board reconciles budget, cuts $16 million

The Loudoun County School Board adopted a reconciled fiscal 2014 budget Monday, after cutting more than $16 million from the spending plan to adjust to the funding level approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

The bulk of the reductions come from operation and maintenance costs across the school system. School Board members closely followed recommendations outlined by School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who had recently provided a guide for the spending cuts. The final spending plan adopted Monday totaled $843.6 million.

The School Board initially sought approval of an $859.7 million budget, but county supervisors voted April 3 to dedicate $841.7 million in local tax revenue to the school system. State funding reduced the budget gap to a little more than $16 million.

Hatrick, in making his recommendations, had been asked by the board to avoid layoffs or cuts that would affect classroom size or otherwise diminish the quality of education. The board also requested that the budget maintain funding for a 2 percent salary increase for employees who receive a satisfactory performance evaluation. That money was included in the adopted plan.

School Board members made some amendments to Hatrick’s proposal, including reinstating 10 full-time kindergarten teachers so as to proceed with a full-day kindergarten program at four Title I elementary schools. Funding the positions meant finding more than $500,000 in savings elsewhere, so the board reduced the allocation for transportation to sporting events and field trips. Families will have to raise money or pay to cover the difference.

School Board member Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said that moving ahead with the full-day kindergarten program at the low-income schools should be a priority. Over the course of the meeting, Sheridan expressed frustration at the lack of input from the community in response to the school budget and said she hoped that feeling the pinch of tight spending this year might motivate more residents to speak out next time around.

“These things should impact our entire community, and when we take away the full-day kindergarten at our four focus schools, you are impacting the Sterling district and part of the Algonkian district,” she said. “While my community will also suffer by a further reduction in field trip transportation funding, I’m hoping that the community will support field trips . . . and booster programs will step it up and do more fundraising and supplement there.”

The board also voted to reinstate 10 staff assistants for English language learners after School Board Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) urged colleagues to consider the importance of the aides’ role in the classroom.

“I think they’re entirely, entirely necessary,” she said.

The School Board also decided against Hatrick’s suggestion to reduce staffing at two of the county’s smallest schools, Hillsboro and Middleburg elementary schools, by having the schools share one clinic assistant and one technology assistant.

The future of those two schools remains uncertain. Loudoun’s smallest and oldest schools have often been threatened during annual budget deliberations, possible closings that have historically been met with an impassioned response from the community. On Monday, some School Board members warned that the schools should not be expected to stay open for long.

Hatrick raised the issue at Monday’s meeting, noting that both schools have fewer than 60 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“When do we reach a point where a school is no longer financially viable or instructionally viable?” Hatrick said. “I understand the staffing concern. . . but it just shines a light once again on this issue. . . . How much longer can we support this model?”

School Board Member Bill Fox (Leesburg) agreed but said he wanted to support some community efforts to reorganize the elementary schools as charter schools.

“That’s the only reason I’ve not pushed for [closing the schools] at this point, and will continue to support these communities . . . so that they can come up with a viable model and really save those schools, hopefully in perpetuity so that we don’t have to be talking about this every year,” he said.

Board Member Jeff Morse (Dulles) said time was running out for the schools to get a charter program in place.

“I do not support keeping them open,” he said. “Without that charter, I do not see them staying open beyond this year.”

Deputy Superintendent Ned Waterhouse warned the board that the process of converting a school to a charter school was lengthy and complex, and he noted that although Middleburg is addressing the possibility, “they’re a long way from having an idea of what they might do.” He also said he was unaware of any such discussions among the Hillsboro Elementary community.

With the School Board’s adoption of the final reconciled budget, the school system’s funding will increase by 2.5 percent over the fiscal 2013 spending plan, as student enrollment is expected to increase by 3.8 percent.

 
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