School and county officials met Tuesday to discuss construction costs of new schools in what may be a preview of upcoming meetings on school spending and capital improvements.
The tone was civil--even friendly--between two groups that traditionally have been at odds, but no one hid his views. The Board of Supervisors wants to slash expenses. School officials say they have trimmed enough.
"This topic has been, in the past, a bit controversial," said Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer), a frequent critic of school spending.
And it will continue to be. Last week, the School Board submitted a six-year, $664 million capital improvement plan that includes, among other projects, construction of 23 schools. Seven of them are high schools, the most expensive campuses to build.
"We're going to make it through this CIP process," Burton assured the 10 school officials, perhaps mindful of past rancor between the two boards. But he added, "I don't think it's going to look like it does now."
Supervisors are expected to scrutinize the first three years of the capital improvement plan more carefully than the last three, which are more speculative.
"I make the pledge that we'll find the money for the [schools] you need," Burton said. "It's loosey-goosey the last few years--I don't know any other way to say it."
On Feb. 7, County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers will present all budget requests to the Board of Supervisors. Burton said he expects the board to begin reviewing the school spending proposal later that month. Budget deliberations must be completed by the end of March, and the tax rate is ratified the first week in April.
Residents of Virginia's fastest-growing county could be looking at more than $800 million in capital improvements, including schools, parks and other projects, during the next six years, Burton said.
"I don't know how we're going to get there," he said.
Some supervisors were hoping that school officials would pick up some cost-cutting tips during an excursion to Douglas County, Colo., one of only two counties nationwide to grow at a faster rate than Loudoun. The Colorado district was able to build a high school for $10 million less than it cost to construct the $40 million Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, which is scheduled to open in August.
Loudoun school officials said the trip confirmed the soundness of many of their own business practices but did not yield any new ideas.
They attributed some of the price differences to building and safety codes, which are less stringent in Colorado, and to the fact that overall construction prices are cheaper there. Loudoun school officials said Douglas County schools don't always open with the necessary library books, furniture and other supplies, which saves that district money.
Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said schools built in Loudoun now rank among the least expensive in the region. He vowed to continue searching for ways to save money.
"We need to keep doing what we've been doing, that is sharpening our pencils and keep refining our design," Hatrick said.
But supervisors said they didn't understand why school officials couldn't identify any new cost-cutting ideas after the Douglas County trip.
"There's got to be some other things," said Supervisor Charles A. Harris (D-Broad Run).
"I'm skeptical," he said. "I'm anxious to see new thinking."
Supervisor J. Drew Hiatt (R-Dulles) said, "I have to tell you I believe . . . we must shave those costs down a bit."
School Board member John A. Andrews II (Broad Run), a developer who also is president of the Loudoun chapter of the Northern Virginia Building and Industry Association, said he understood the supervisors' frustrations. But he said the School Board's new Bid, Construction and Site Acquisition Committee, of which Andrews is a member, intends to closely examine school construction costs.
"You will see additional savings through efficiencies," he said.