The Loudoun County School Board concluded its longest budget season in memory Thursday, adopting a series of cuts to reconcile the school system's budget with that adopted by the county's Board of Supervisors earlier in the week.
The $469 million budget for fiscal 2005 represents an 18 percent increase over this year's funding but is about $28 million below that requested by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III.
Even as School Board members made some final cuts, they were able to reduce high school class sizes, extend an elementary-school Spanish program and give teachers a 3 percent cost-of-living raise on top of their yearly step increases. Between the two, the average teacher raise will be 6.2 percent.
The board voted to save money by delaying the adoption of a new reading textbook and by cutting travel and office supplies from several school departments. The board also agreed to administer the national standardized Stanford exams in third and eighth grades rather than in fourth, sixth and eighth grades, and to delay hiring several middle school teachers, which would have reduced algebra and English teaching loads.
Nevertheless, the budget adds teaching positions and reduces average middle school class size by one student, from 22 to 21, and the average high school class size by one-half student, from 26.6 to 26.1. High school class sizes in Loudoun are the largest in Northern Virginia.
The budget reductions also allowed the board to add more than $300,000 to the Foreign Language in Elementary School program. The new money means that the Spanish language classes will be taught for the first time in every county elementary school and in first through fourth grade, instead of first through third.
The budget adoption means the school system now can issue contracts to new teachers. It comes just in time, since school systems are prohibited after June 1 from trying to hire teachers who have been offered a contract by another Virginia school system.
The vote concluded one of the longest -- and most tumultuous -- budget processes in memory. The School Board adopted its initial spending plan in January. But County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers said that fully funding the request would require raising the county's property tax rate 8 cents, which the Republican-led Board of Supervisors said would not fly.
Fearing tens of millions of dollars in cuts, school activists mobilized parents, who packed public hearings to speak in support of the budget. Ultimately, after trimming other areas of county spending instead, the supervisors voted to reduce the tax rate from $1.11 to $1.1075 and cut much less deeply from the school system.
The process then stalled when legislators in Richmond could not agree on a state budget. However, the agreement reached there earlier this month will raise $1.5 billion in new tax dollars and earmarks $6.8 million more in state aid for Loudoun schools than anticipated.
The School Board adopted its final budget on a 6 to 2 vote, with one absence.
Chairman John A. Andrews II (Potomac) voted against the budget because he said it did not lower high school class sizes enough. The board rejected a proposal he advanced that would have trimmed teacher raises by 0.3 percent to lower average class size by another half-student. Andrews said he "felt sick" after approving a budget last year with little class size relief. "I'm not going to do that again," he said.
Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) also voted against the budget, saying he would have liked to make more systematic changes to it, including eliminating athletic trainers and assistant athletic directors, rather than trimming some money from almost every school department.
Other board members said they were pleased with the efforts, calling it the best possible outcome of the difficult exercise. Still, Mark J. Nuzzaco (Catoctin) warned that they would need to work with supervisors to ensure that the two sides were more in line before they repeated the same process next year.
"I'd hope we could have a continuing conversation with the funding body to close what I would call the vision gap between us," Nuzzaco said.