The Loudoun County School Board voted to scale back raises for teachers and slightly increase elementary and middle school class size when it adopted a $388.2 million operating budget for 2004 on Monday. The amount is about $12 million less than the board said in January would be required to educate county children next year.
Board members said the cuts would be painful and blamed the Board of Supervisors for failing to fund their budget request fully.
"This is a tight, tight budget. . . . Every stone was turned over, every place was looked at and there's no margin for error," said School Board Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles). "It's a shame for one of the wealthiest counties in the country to say we can't afford things."
The board accepted 40 separate cuts suggested by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III to make its budget match that appropriated by the supervisors, spreading the cuts across many departments in what members said was an effort to make the trims as painless as possible.
But the bulk of the cuts, more than $5.3 million, came from salaries and increased class sizes. Board members voted to halve a cost-of-living raise to teachers and other employees to 1 percent and to increase average class size in kindergarten to eighth grade from 22 to 22 1/2 students. Instructional changes will take effect when children return to school in August.
County officials have significantly increased teacher salaries in recent years to match those in Fairfax County, hoping to stem a longtime brain drain of teachers who move east for better pay. Hatrick said he hoped that Fairfax, which is still discussing its budget, also would settle on a 1 percent cost-of-living raise, leaving salaries roughly equal.
"When we look at what our neighbors are doing and proposing to do, we have to remain competitive in terms of salaries," he said in an interview. "I still want to get the very best teachers. I also don't want to send a message that Loudoun's commitment to salaries is a sort of fair weather thing."
Most school employees receive the cost-of-living increase atop a step increase that averages about 3.2 percent each year.
Hatrick said the upward nudge in average class size, which involves hiring 45 fewer new academic teachers, was small enough that few parents would notice. But he said school districts that increase class sizes to balance budgets can find the effects cumulative.
"The thing is that is a slippery slope," he said. "Will the difference be dramatic? No. But if you do it again and again it will become dramatic."
Other cuts delay the expansion of popular programs. The board voted to delay expanding the Foreign Language in Elementary School program to 14 schools, though three new elementary schools that are to open in August will still have the program.
The cuts also delay new dean positions at high schools designed to handle special education issues, the expansion of the parent liaison program to work with minority parents and hiring a coordinator who was to help start the county's first biotechnology academy for high school students. The academy, which will draw students countywide and be at the new Dominion High School, will be pushed back at least a year, administrators said.
Board members said, however, that serving low-income students should remain a priority. They adopted a motion by Harry R. Holsinger (Blue Ridge) that skimmed from planned salary raises for the county's most experienced employees. This freed up additional dollars for two new all-day kindergarten classes for high-risk students, a new bus run at the high school level that would leave 45 minutes to an hour after the class day ended and teacher training.
The bus, Holsinger said, would allow teachers to conduct intensive after-school study sessions for students who would otherwise have no rides home. Hatrick had recommended delaying both programs.
"I think we need to be very aggressive in making sure the kids who need help get it," Holsinger said.
Only John A. Andrews II (Broad Run) voted against the budget, saying the board should cut more deeply this year in case tougher economic times are ahead. Andrews said he favored cutting cost-of-living raises to 0.5 percent or eliminating them.
"The economy is not getting better," he said. "Depending on what goes on in the world, it could go flat or get worse."