Survey highlights Loudoun parents and educators’ priorities for school spending

As the Loudoun County School Board continues to work on a budget for the 2014-15 academic year, residents have begun to weigh in on how the board should allocate its funding, with academic programs and smaller classes among the priorities.

More than 10,100 county residents — including parents and school employees — participated in a comprehensive survey launched by the school system in December, school officials said. The survey aimed to “engage the general public in a conversation” as the budget process unfolds, and to gauge the perceived importance of current districtwide school programs and services, officials said.

That input could offer valuable guidance during what promises to be a difficult budget cycle. School Superintendent Edgar J. Hatrick III, who will retire in June, presented a $952 million budget proposal this month for fiscal 2015, a plan that would require more than $87 million in additional county funding.

County supervisors favor a budget that would avoid raising property taxes, but that would leave the school system facing a potential funding gap of more than $80 million.

For the past two budget cycles, the School Board has made significant cuts to Hatrick’s proposed budgets even before the plans were sent to the Board of Supervisors for review. This year, Hatrick made a strong appeal for full funding, saying that the school system is at “a tipping point” as it struggles to balance steadily rising student enrollment with pressure from the county to cut costs.

As School Board members scrutinize the system’s expenditures across a wide range of programs, the survey offers some insight into how those programs and services are valued by parents, students and school employees. Parents of students from all of the system’s schools responded to the survey, along with 1,500 school employees, officials said.

Of the school system’s academic programs, courses focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) were ranked as a top priority by survey participants, ahead of honors and Advanced Placement classes and foreign language programs. Seventy-three percent of those completing the survey said they wanted to see STEM funding increased from its current levels.

When asked about school features, survey respondents indicated that having fewer students in classrooms was of utmost importance. Elementary school classroom size was ranked the top priority, with middle school and high school class sizes close behind, the survey showed.

At the bottom of the priority list was funding to keep Loudoun’s small schools open. The county has four small community schools — in Middleburg, Hillsboro, Aldie and Lincoln — that are regularly threatened with being closed in annual budget deliberations. Thirty-eight percent of the residents who took the survey said they would support cutting funds for the four schools.

Music programs, including marching bands, string orchestras, choirs and instrumental ensembles, came in first over athletic programs in a ranking of most important co-curricular activities, the survey said. Programs such as drama clubs, school newspapers and debate teams were at the bottom of that list.

The survey also showed strong support for increasing teachers’ salaries, with 76 percent of participants indicating that they wanted the School Board to boost funding for employee compensation. In his presentation to the School Board, Hatrick also pushed for a more balanced pay scale to help attract and retain talented teachers. He said that Loudoun has increasingly struggled to stay competitive as surrounding jurisdictions offer higher salaries to talented educators.

In the survey, community members also offered comments on issues of top importance. Many of those who wrote additional remarks “desire smaller class size, a transition to electronic textbooks, WiFi access and access to computers,” the survey said.

Some residents “reported that they would be comfortable with a tax increase, if such an increase led to improved schooling,” the survey said, highlighting the discrepancy between community members who have urged the county to fully fund the school budget and those who have appealed to county supervisors to lessen the tax burden. The Board of Supervisors has asked county staff members to prepare a budget proposal that would not raise taxes for the average Loudoun homeowner.

A public hearing on the budget proposal is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the School Administration Building, 21000 Education Ct., Ashburn. The board is scheduled to adopt a budget Jan. 29. The proposed school spending plan will then be sent to the Board of Supervisors for review.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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