Loudoun schools could face deeper cuts in fiscal 2014 budget

September 17, 2012

Just a few months after concluding a challenging budget cycle, the Loudoun County School Board received an early warning from county supervisors: More cuts will be necessary in the coming fiscal year.

The supervisors’ five-member Finance and Government Operations Committee voted Monday to recommend that supervisors pursue a fiscal 2014 budget that would lower the county’s property tax rate by 3 cents per $100 of assessed value. Under the plan supported by the committee, the school system would be solely responsible for absorbing the cuts needed to make the tax reduction possible.

If supervisors follow the committee’s recommendation, the plan would keep the county government budget stable, but the school system would receive about $2.5 million less in county funds, county staff members said.

The adopted fiscal 2013 school budget forecast that the system would need about $62 million in additional funding for fiscal 2014 to keep pace with the addition of about 2,500 students and two elementary schools. If those numbers stand, the School Board could be grappling with a nearly $70 million shortfall, county officials said.

That funding gap would be reduced by about $9 million if anticipated state revenue is taken into consideration, officials said.

But even if supervisors were to pursue an equalized tax rate — foregoing the push to give county taxpayers a 3-cent reduction — and state revenue comes through as expected, the school system would still need to come up with $40 million in savings, county officials said.

With or without tax relief for property owners, it seems likely that the region’s fastest-growing school system will face a significant financial challenge in the coming months.

In late April, a few weeks after supervisors adopted a $1.8 billion county budget, the School Board adopted a reconciled fiscal 2013 budget of $809 million, after a prolonged and controversial process led by a majority of newly elected members. For the first time in years, School Board members, many of whom describe themselves as fiscal conservatives, trimmed School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III’s proposed $831 million plan by more than $12 million before it was presented to supervisors for review.

Even deeper cuts would be necessary this time around, supervisors cautioned Monday.

The all-Republican Board of Supervisors also made campaign promises of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes. With county government operations and services already “pretty lean,” Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said, the School Board would probably carry the financial burden of giving a tax break to Loudoun property owners.

At the committee meeting, Hemstreet urged supervisors to begin discussions with School Board members right away.

“We believe this represents significant issues for the school system,” Hemstreet said. “My recommendation would be to start that conversation with the School Board as soon as possible, because I believe the board needs to understand well before the January-February time frame what the potential impact is.”

Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) assured Hemstreet that informal conversations with School Board members had begun. School Board finance committee Chairman Kevin Keusters (Broad Run) was at the meeting Monday.

Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) said he knows the School Board shares the supervisors’ desire to “find efficiencies” and ways to cut costs. With the fiscal 2013 budget, the majority of School Board members were newcomers who needed time to become familiar with the system, Williams said, adding that he was confident more savings could be found.

He also emphasized that supervisors had no desire to damage Loudoun’s public schools through budget reductions.

“It’s not my intent by any means to try to squeeze the schools so that they can’t maintain the same level of success they’ve had for years and years,” Williams said. “This is by no means a message that the Board of Supervisors doesn’t support education. To the contrary, we very much do.”

Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) voiced concern about the impact of continuing to cut the tax rate, noting that the school system is “an easy attack” and that “holding to the minimum” in public safety and other count services may be ill-advised.

“I’m telling you, we have bent over backward to do everything we can to keep the tax rate low, but at some point we’re doing damage,” he said. “I am getting very concerned; every time we turn around, it seems like we’re losing good people.”

As part of its recommendation to the supervisors, the committee also advised that county staff members should study the implementation of a fee for emergency medical transport services. Loudoun is the only jurisdiction in the Washington region that does not collect ambulance fees, county officials said. Such fees could bring in an additional $4 million to $5 million, said Ben Mays, Loudoun’s acting chief financial officer.

The committee’s recommendation will come before the full Board of Supervisors at its first business meeting next month, when supervisors are expected to provide official guidance to county officials for the preparation of a proposed fiscal 2014 budget.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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