Proposed School Cuts Draw Mixed Response

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

The extensive spending cuts proposed last week by Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III drew a generally positive reaction from county supervisors.

But some school activists said the deepest of those cuts would hurt educational quality, and at least one School Board member said he thought more could be stripped from the budget.

Hatrick's proposals, which would increase class sizes and student fees and cut money for special education and other programs, will be aired at public hearings Thursday and Jan. 20. The School Board will forward its version of the spending plan to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 27.

In a fast-growing school district where double-digit spending increases have long been the norm, Hatrick recommended a budget for next fiscal year that would increase overall spending by 1.6 percent and require $1.3 million less in county funds than the current budget. He also complied with supervisors' request to propose spending reductions based on cuts of 5, 10 and 15 percent in county funding -- guidelines that county department heads were told to follow.

For the two worst-case funding scenarios, Hatrick proposed hundreds of job cuts, four elementary school closures, a new fee of at least $200 per student to participate in school sports, and little or no funding for buses for field trips and after-school activities, among other measures.

Supervisors said they appreciated Hatrick's approach, given the budget crisis the county is facing, which was triggered by plummeting housing values and projections of a sharp drop in property tax assessments.

"It's headed in the right direction," Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I) said of Hatrick's $757.7 million budget proposal. "We obviously have a very severe budget coming up, and we're going to have to do everything we can to close the budget gap." That gap was $175 million as of November.

Last year, supervisors approved just more than half of the School Board's requested $104 million budget increase. This year, it's a question of how much funding they will cut.

The Board of Supervisors approves the dollar amount that goes to the schools but by law cannot decide how the School Board spends the money. In past years, school officials have waited for supervisors to approve funding before specifying what they would trim if they did not receive full funding.

Supervisor James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said he was glad that Hatrick had spelled out which programs would be cut if the supervisors were to fund the schools below his request.

"I am pleased, extremely pleased, that the superintendent and the School Board took our fiscal guidance to heart," Burton said.

But Burton said that some of the more onerous cuts proposed by Hatrick seemed designed to stir community opposition and make it politically harder to slash school spending. "It's an old game around town," Burton said. "You offer up the Washington Monument knowing that it's too important to cut."

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