Loudoun supervisors to review proposed school spending plan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Over the past three years, Loudoun teachers have seen the county's public schools struggle to keep up with a soaring student population. More desks have been pushed into already crowded classrooms to accommodate the addition of about 3,000 students each year. As residents of one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, they have seen their cost of living steadily increase along with the demands of their jobs. And for three years, their salaries have been frozen, the result of a school system simultaneously facing rising costs and diminished funding.

School employees, union representatives and many parents are united in the hope that this pattern might soon change, even if the first step is a small one.

The school system's fiscal 2012 budget - a sizeable portion of the county's budget and the recipient of 69 percent of county tax dollars - will come before the Board of Supervisors for review Wednesday. If the proposed $757 million budget - which includes a 3 percent salary increase - is approved, supporters say they hope it might help prevent teachers and other school personnel from seeking employment outside the county or in another profession.

Approval is not guaranteed. Several board members are reluctant to raise property taxes to the rate necessary to fund the budget. But School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has long cautioned county officials about the risks of freezing teacher salaries and underfunding the school system as it experiences a period of sizeable growth.

At his annual State of Education address in September, Hatrick noted that although Loudoun had long been a destination for families and educators alike, crowded schools and employee salaries that rank second-to-last among nine area school districts were beginning to reverse that trend.

"If you want to have an excellent school system, you can't do it if you don't have excellent personnel," Hatrick said. "My real concern is that when you start to go through a period of time where you're not attracting the best people, it's not just a temporary problem. It becomes a long-term problem. We want people to know that Loudoun County is a place where they want to come to work, not just for this year, but for a career."

Sandy Sullivan, president of the Loudoun Education Association, said that she has heard repeatedly from parents who are concerned about crowded classrooms and teachers who say they are overworked and underpaid. In response to a survey sent to Loudoun teachers late last month, Sullivan said that 52 percent of the 548 classroom teachers who responded said they had already taken a second job to supplement their teaching salary.

"That's a real concern to us," Sullivan said. A second job means less time and energy available for the classroom, she added. "And we know teachers are working above and beyond their hours anyway."

Sullivan said the association would, in an upcoming survey, ask teachers whether they are considering leaving the system. She also said that she thinks approval of the proposed budget would be an important first step toward showing teachers that they don't have to leave the county or their profession to be fairly compensated.

"It's not going to wipe away the impact of three years of salary freezes," she said. "But it's certainly a step in the right direction."

Janet Wise, 43, a Loudoun resident and classroom assistant who worked with special education students at Harmony Middle School in Hamilton, accepted a summer job with a construction company to supplement her salary last year. When that temporary position evolved into a full-time job offer, Wise - who had been working on a teaching degree for three years - made the painful decision to leave the school system.

She said that she loved working with students but that her new job doubled her income.

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