Loudoun School Board tackles the budget

January 22, 2012

A school board dominated by newcomers and Republican-endorsed members is overseeing Loudoun County public schools after an election that produced major turnover.

A few weeks into their term, the six new members on the nine-seat board are seeking to fulfill campaign pledges of fiscal responsibility, greater transparency and effective long-range planning. The board will guide the Washington region’s fastest-growing school system into a future shaped by economic challenges and soaring enrollment.

Its first task is to review the system’s proposed $831.6 million budget for the next fiscal year, scheduled for adoption Tuesday. Among the priorities that members have identified: reducing class sizes and offering teachers a pay raise. Tight budgets in recent years have led to growth in average class size, and money for raises has been scarce.

“Many of us ran on campaigns about accountability and responsibility in the budget,” said new board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian). “We want to be accountable with the county taxpayers’ money. We are actively engaged in a way that the board hasn’t been for a long time . . . you’re seeing us go through the budget line by line.” In the November election, Rose unseated the board chairman, John Stevens.

It is too soon to tell how campaign promises will translate into action when the board faces sensitive issues such as finding sites for new schools — including a new high school in western Loudoun — or adjusting boundary lines for school attendance when new campuses are opened. But so far, some parents and members of education-focused political action committees said they are encouraged by the board’s scrutiny of the budget.

“I have watched their meetings, and I think they’re asking good questions,” said Anne Denzin of Lansdowne, mother of a middle school student. “There’s a lot of other things that as a parent I would like to talk about, but right now they have to do the budget, and I’ve been impressed so far.”

The November election produced the most significant shakeup of the Loudoun school board in more than a decade, as three incumbents were ousted and three others retired.

The last time Loudoun voters elected six new board members — in 1999 — fewer than 29,000 students were enrolled in county schools. In the years since, enrollment has more than doubled, to about 65,000 students. School officials say the student population is growing by about 2,500 youngsters each year.

At the board’s first meeting this month, the new members quickly set themselves apart from the previous board and their veteran colleagues when they sought to remove several items from the board’s agenda for legislative action in Richmond. Among those items was a recommendation to expand protected classifications in the Virginia Human Rights Act to include gender orientation and gender identity, which would in turn allow local school boards to be similarly inclusive in policies and regulations. The motion to remove the recommendation passed in a 6 to 3 vote that split new and veteran board members. Equality Loudoun, an activist group, criticized the action as a “sneer at human rights.”

Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said the decision was based on a need to set priorities.

“It’s an issue of focus,” he said. “We have a limited amount of time before our legislators. . . . Loudoun already has inclusive anti-bullying policies, so why are we pushing for a protective classification for an issue that doesn’t exist within our current school system?”

Stevens, the former chairman, who is a Democrat, writes about the board on a blog called Our Loudoun Schools. He said he is not concerned that the new board will exert a socially conservative influence on school policies. Although school board members do not run for office as partisan candidates, they are sometimes endorsed by political parties. Six current members of the board were endorsed by the Loudoun County Republican Committee, up from four previously. None of the current members received support from the Loudoun County Democratic Committee. On the previous board, Democrats had endorsed four members.

“The school board is just not a very ideological place,” Stevens said, adding that federal and state regulations help keep certain policies fairly uniform. “There’s not a lot of opportunity at the local level to deviate from that. As a pretty socially liberal person myself, I’m not concerned that they’re going to take a sudden turn toward censorship or discrimination or anything like that.”

In coming months, parents and community members will get the chance to see how the new board will address the school system’s looming growth challenges, such as a projected 21,000 classroom-seat deficit by 2019.

Loudoun schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the new leaders are “off to a good start,” adding that he does not expect to see “radical change” in the coming term. Hatrick, in office since 1991, is the longest-serving schools chief in the region. His contract expires in June 2014. There has been no indication that the new board is seeking a leadership change.

“I don’t remember anybody standing up and saying that we need to do away with half the programs we’ve got,” Hatrick said. “Everybody wants to make the school system better. The problem is that a lot of times it takes money to make that happen.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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