Loudoun supervisors, School Board grapple with budget shortfall

At a joint budget work session Wednesday between the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and the School Board, county leaders applauded the School Board’s recent efforts to reduce the school system’s budget — and drove home the need for tens of millions in additional cuts.

School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) presented the $819.7 million school budget to supervisors, emphasizing the nearly $14 million in cuts the School Board has already made to the plan proposed by School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III. Those reductions include the removal of more than 100 full-time school employee positions, the reinstatement of Advanced Placement and athletic fees and a reduction of the foreign language in elementary schools program.

Turgeon noted that it was the first time in several years that such cuts have been made by a School Board before delivering the budget to supervisors. The reductions were intended to demonstrate “good stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” she said — a key campaign initiative for many new supervisors and School Board members elected in November.

Several supervisors voiced appreciation for the School Board’s cuts.

“I really want to applaud the efforts to really get in there right off the bat and find where you could get some savings,” Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) said.

But another message was also made clear: Those cuts won’t be enough.

Supervisors voted last week to begin budget negotiations with a base property tax rate of $1.21, of $100 assessed value, which would reduce the average homeowner’s tax bill by about 5 percent — and require about $50 million in cuts from the fiscal plan recommended by County Administrator Tim Hemstreet. If county leaders hold to the $1.21 rate, Loudoun homeowners could expect to pay about $200 less in taxes than this year.

But the budget cuts required to achieve that scenario would pose a significant challenge for supervisors and the School Board.

The adopted school budget would require $536.5 million from the county, resulting in a $22 million funding gap if the county were to impose a tax rate of $1.27. A reduced tax rate of $1.21 would double that gap, to about $44 million.

Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) asked School Board members directly whether they thought it was possible to cut that much from their current proposal. Hornberger’s answer was unequivocal.

“I don’t think your board, certainly our board, or the businesses of Loudoun County and parents of Loudoun County will want to see what a school system will look like with a $44 million reduction over what we’ve already done, in one year’s time,” Hornberger said.

He reminded supervisors that a sizable chunk of the adopted school budget, about $34 million, accounts for state-mandated contributions to the Virginia Retirement System, a necessary expenditure “that doesn’t do anything to improve the education in Loudoun County.”

Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) urged the School Board to revisit the more than 300 new employee positions included in the budget, noting the expense accumulated by full-time employees.

“Every time we add a [full-time employee], it has a big effect, a very big effect,” Buona said.

Hatrick and Hornberger said the staffing increase was not unusual, as Loudoun remains one of the fastest-growing school districts in the country.

“We have 2,500 new students coming into the system,” Hornberger said. “It’s a highly human industry. You have to have teachers.”

The alternative, he said, is to increase class size, something the School Board has said it wants to avoid.

The meeting set the tone for a difficult process ahead, as both boards work to negotiate a budget that reflects the fiscal responsibility pledged to Loudoun voters, while avoiding gutting the school system.

Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I) — who last week proposed that supervisors begin the budget process with an equalized tax rate of $1.27 but was overruled by his fellow board members — pointed out that a $1.21 tax rate demands that the school system absorb thousands of new students with no accompanying budget increase.

“I hope, certainly, that doesn’t stand,” York said.

But in the closing comments of the evening, York expressed frustration at the previous School Board’s decision last year to spend more than $8 million in surplus on items such as electronic whiteboards, rather than putting the money toward Virginia Retirement System contributions. He urged the current School Board to avoid making similar choices.

“That left a sour taste,” York said. “I hope, as you guys have the opportunity to look at your budgets and seeing savings come along, that your first thought isn’t just to go out and spend it on a whim without looking into the future at what we’re facing.”

The Board of Supervisors will be holding budget work sessions this month, with final budget adoption scheduled for early April. Loudoun residents can submit comments by e-mail at loudounbudget@loudoun.gov, by calling 703-777-0115 or by writing to the Board of Supervisors, P.O. Box 7000, Leesburg, Va. 20177.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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