Members of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors expressed skepticism last week at the number of construction projects and the size of the operating budget requested by the School Board for next year.
At an occasionally testy meeting between the two panels Thursday, several supervisors said they were "shocked" in particular at new school renovation projects that the School Board suggested be funded this year, and they expressed doubt about the need for a new high school in Purcellville in 2007.
Several also questioned the School Board's commitment to holding down costs in the past year and suggested that the school system look at new ways to raise funds.
Supervisors on the board's finance committee had especially harsh words for the Capital Improvements Program (CIP), which lays out construction and renovation projects the School Board would like to fund in the next five years.
The School Board adopted a CIP in January that would require $52 million more for renovation projects this year than the plan they adopted last year. Funding for the projects -- renovations at the county's four oldest middle schools and at Loudoun County High School -- would probably be put on a bond referendum in November.
"I was shocked at this year's CIP as compared to last year's CIP even to the point that it has shaken my sense of credibility," said Supervisor Charles A. Harris (D-Broad Run).
Harris said he would like to see a master plan of building renovations planned by the School Board so new projects such as the middle school refurbishments don't crop up unexpectedly. "I don't feel like you have a program in the strictest sense," he said. "I feel like it's hit or miss."
School Board members responded that the middle school renovations were driven by concerns about safety raised after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They said parents have complained that the main offices of the older middle schools are configured in such a way that school personnel cannot see who comes through their main doors, except by camera.
"Those schools are just not as safe and secure as we would like them to be," said School Board member Candyce P. Cassell (Sugarland Run). She said it made sense to make other needed improvements at the schools, including new fire suppression systems, at the same time.
School Board members also said they have already instructed school administrators to develop a master plan to guide school renovations in coming years.
Burton said the supervisors' finance committee would vote on the School Board's CIP tomorrow. The program would then be passed on to the full Board of Supervisors, which is to vote on the entire county budget this month.School Board Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles) also gave a formal presentation of the $400.2 million operating budget for 2004. He argued that the $41.3 million in new local funding his board has requested was necessary to cope with continued growth in the system and to pay teachers competitively.
Supervisors responded with questions on such topics as teacher salaries, whether the system had considered raising user fees and what kind of studies are conducted to judge the effectiveness of new programs.
County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers has said that supervisors would have to raise the property tax rate from $1.08 per $100 of assessed value to $1.16 to fund the School Board's budget fully. Instead, he has suggested that supervisors raise the tax rate to $1.105 and force the School Board to trim $19 million from its adopted budget.
If the board did so, per pupil school spending would grow 1 percent next year, a figure that would match a budget guideline set by the supervisors in October.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said the guideline was meant only as a "challenge" and asked the School Board to assess the impact of a $19 million cut.
"A cut of that size will cut into programs we offer, will cut into class sizes and/or salaries," responded Harry F. Holsinger (Blue Ridge). "You can't just trim at the edges and get $19 million."
But Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer) said Bowers made tough choices to hold spending on county government and said he was disappointed in the school system's efforts to do the same. He noted that the School Board has received full funding of its budget in only two of the past 10 years but still runs a "darn good school system." He suggested that the same would occur this year, even if the supervisors force cuts.
"I'm very confident that what will come out of the dance this spring will be an adequate level of funding," Holsinger said.