Uncertainty Surrounds New Budget For Schools

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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Although the Loudoun County School Board approved a budget last week that would keep most educational programs in place, several county supervisors said they are likely to impose deeper cuts, and it remained unclear how the School Board will respond if they do.

The board forwarded to supervisors Tuesday a $747 million schools operating budget for the next fiscal year that keeps spending essentially flat -- despite a projected enrollment increase of almost 2,500 -- and that requires $12 million less in county funding than the current budget. By freezing teacher salaries and instituting student fees for various programs, the board was able to avoid cutting staff positions or increasing the average class size.

But several supervisors, although praising the School Board for its restraint, said more cuts are likely, given the need to close an overall county budget gap of about $200 million.

"This is not a year for business as usual," said Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles). "My impression is that myself and others will be looking for more than just $12 million [in cuts]. The circumstances call for it."

Supervisors approve the dollar amount that goes to the school district but, by law, cannot decide how the School Board spends the money.

Saying they wanted to provide a clear picture of what they would trim if they received less money than requested, School Board members directed School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III late last year to prepare three lists of hypothetical cuts. They asked for lists showing what would be eliminated if supervisors reduced county funding for schools by 5, 10 and 15 percent. Supervisors praised the approach, saying it would bring transparency to a budget process that both sides have criticized as opaque previously.

But the picture is not that clear, after all. On Tuesday, board members declined to act on any of the potential cuts Hatrick listed, which in the worst-case funding scenarios include trimming staff by almost 600 positions, slashing special education, eliminating outreach programs and summer school, closing four elementary schools and imposing an athletic fee of $250 per student per sport, among other measures.

The possible cuts Hatrick listed "are a reliable but not a final indicator" of what will happen if the School Board needs to make deeper cuts, said board Chairman Robert F. DuPree Jr. (Dulles). "At the end of the day, there still has to be decision-making once the funding levels have come in."

But DuPree also said there would be no surprises. "There are no further magic rabbits to pull out of a hat to substitute for those things," he said.

Although the board is scheduled to review the lists of potential cuts at its meeting Feb. 10, several members said they did not expect the board to commit to what it would do if supervisors slashed funding.

One reason to hold off, some said, is that state funding is in flux. Under a formula that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed in December, Loudoun school officials estimate they will get $400,000 less than they received this fiscal year, a relatively light blow compared with other systems in the state.

But in the month and a half since Kaine's proposal, the state's economic climate has darkened, deficits have widened and it has become increasingly likely that Loudoun will face a larger cut in state aid. It's also possible that because of political gridlock, the legislature will recess at the end of the month without having approved a budget.


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