Loudoun adopts $1.9 billion budget; schools face a nearly $38 million shortfall

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to adopt a $1.9 billion budget for fiscal 2015, a plan that boosts education spending by nearly $70 million but still falls about $38 million short of fully funding the school system’s requested budget.

The decision was met with disappointed quiet from a standing-room-only crowd dominated by public school supporters, many of whom wore red or held red signs as a show of solidarity during the hours-long meeting.

Affirming their repeated promises to avoid raising taxes for county residents, the supervisors also set a real property tax rate of $1.155 per $100 of assessed value, meaning that the average county homeowner should see no increase in property taxes in the coming fiscal year.

About 66 percent of more than $1 billion in local tax revenue will be devoted to school system operating expenses, county officials said, with the remaining 34 percent supporting county government operating expenses, capital projects and debt service. The adopted budget also includes enhancements in public safety spending and community development projects, as well as an average three percent, pay-for-performance salary increase for eligible county employees.

The board’s vote brought to a close a particularly contentious budget cycle, one that frequently placed the fiscally conservative, all-Republican supervisors at odds with the county School Board and outgoing schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who argued that the public school system was at a critical turning point and required additional funding to keep pace with its rapid growth in recent years.

Community members who spoke at recent public budget hearings largely sided with school system leaders, with scores of speakers urging the supervisors to fully fund the School Board’s $949 million adopted budget, which would require about $106 million in additional county funds over the fiscal 2014 plan. Numerous speakers continued to plead for that money Wednesday at a public input session before the board’s final vote.

Michelle Copeland, a Leesburg resident and parent of a Loudoun County third-grade student, said she had come to speak to the board on the evening of her 10th wedding anniversary because she believed her son’s education was of paramount importance.

“I am willing to make the sacrifices to pay whatever it takes so my son has a quality education, has a good teacher, and a small class size,” she said. “Please, I urge you tonight to have the courage to change your mind and make a proposal so that we can fully fund … our school budget.”

Behind her in the packed boardroom, dozens of red handheld signs were silently lifted into the air, displaying the message “Raise the Rate: Support Our Schools.”

But the door had already closed on that possibility. At the Board of Supervisors’ final budget work session March 21, the county leaders decided in a straw vote to devote about $600 million in county funding to the school system — an 8.5 percent increase that would nonetheless leave schools facing a substantial funding gap.

Supervisors argued then that the appropriation was still enough to cover the school system’s top funding priorities, but School Board members countered the $600 million appropriation would require painful cuts — including possibly closing four of Loudoun’s historic community schools, cutting back on bus transportation for after-school activities, and eliminating freshmen sports teams and summer school programs, among other reductions.

At a meeting Tuesday, School Board members also encouraged the public to keep lobbying county supervisors to reconsider their straw vote in the final hours before the county’s budget adoption — an appeal that drew frustration from Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large), who posted a statement on his Facebook page Wednesday saying that he had “become weary and quite frankly disappointed in [the School Board’s] manipulation of the public and the emotional blackmail.”

If the School Board feels it must make cuts, “it is not a financial resource issue, it is a management issue,” he said in the post.

That sentiment was echoed by Supervisor Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run) in his comments immediately before the board’s vote.

“It’s unfortunate how much misinformation has been put out about this budget … there are no cuts on the table. We are only looking at substantial increases,” he said. “The bottom line with this budget is that it adequately funds our educational needs.”

The budget and tax rate were adopted in a 5-3-1 vote, with Supervisors Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling), Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) opposed and Supervisor Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) absent. Delgaudio and Volpe both felt that the budget could have been more fiscally conservative; Reid said he supported the budget, but had hoped for a slightly higher tax rate to allow the School Board more flexibility with the school system’s budget.

The supervisors also adopted a $1.9 billion, six-year Capital Improvements Program, including $190 million for general government projects — $121 million of which will be dedicated to transportation projects — and $107 million for school projects.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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