Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III told the School Board last week that he thinks it will cost $400.4 million to educate Loudoun County students next year, as he presented a budget with few new initiatives and few cuts to programs implemented over the past three years.
Hatrick's budget calls for $309.2 million in funding from local taxes -- a $44.7 million increase over this year. That is about $22 million less than the School Board said last spring that it would need to run schools next year but about $22 million more than a target the Board of Supervisors asked it to meet in October.
"I didn't meet that target," Hatrick told the board Tuesday night. "I can't meet that target without reducing the quality and extent of services to our students."
The School Board is under pressure to hold down its budget request to the Board of Supervisors as the county faces lower-than-projected tax revenue, falling state funding and the prospect of a property tax rate increase in an election year.
Hatrick said $26.8 million of the increase is the result of the cost of extending services to 2,718 new students next year and opening five new schools next fall. He also proposed a 2 percent raise for all employees and added another year to the salary scale, meaning that employees would receive an automatic experienced-based raise for one more year than they do now.
Hatrick called for bringing the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program to seven additional schools and expanding it to the third grade. He advocated maintaining a stringed-instrument program after school at middle schools, starting a full-day kindergarten program at Sully Elementary and implementing a block schedule, in which students attend half of their classes for twice the time each day, at all middle and high schools.
"You are not going to find reductions in this budget, but you will also not find the kind of program increases I would like to see," he said.
Hatrick said budgets are tight locally because the percentage of the school system's budget provided by state government is decreasing annually. At the same time, federal funding is scheduled to rise from $700,000 this year to $6.5 million next year because of new money available in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
Several board members praised Hatrick for holding costs without gouging programs. "He has shown great responsibility . . . and fiscal restraint," said Geary M. Higgins (Catoctin), a self-described fiscal conservative. "I commend him and thank him for a fine beginning."
Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles) said the Board of Supervisors' target put Hatrick in an uncomfortable position but complimented him for shaving money off the preliminary plan adopted earlier by the board.
"There's really not a lot of discretionary spending in this," Vogric said. "It's basically continuing to do what we're doing for more kids at more schools. That was probably a tough decision on [Hatrick's] part to not go forward, but we're not going backwards."
The board will examine specifics of Hatrick's plan in a series of work sessions this month and early January and is to vote on the budget Jan. 14. The Board of Supervisors then starts its process leading to a spring vote on the county budget.