With looming economic challenges to consider and promises of fiscal responsibility to uphold, Loudoun County supervisors have repeatedly issued a clear message to the School Board during budget discussions: Prepare to make deeper cuts this time.
Last week, the School Board heeded that directive, adopting its fiscal 2014 budget after first cutting nearly $17 million from the funding plan proposed by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III.
Whether the reductions will satisfy supervisors is uncertain. The adopted $859.7 million budget represents an increase of about $36 million over the school system’s fiscal 2013 budget.
When Hatrick presented his spending plan to the School Board last month, he emphasized that it was already lean. The increased funding represented the minimum necessary to account for an anticipated 2,500 new students in the fall, he said, as well as the opening of two elementary schools.
But over the course of a lengthy Jan. 24 meeting, which stretched into the early morning, the School Board made a series of votes that ultimately reduced Hatrick’s proposal by $16.7 million.
Board members trimmed an estimated $4 million from the budget by equalizing the school system’s payments for two employee health care plans, meaning that employees would have to cover the difference if they opt for the more expensive plan; those who chose the less costly plan would pay less.
The board also established a tiered benefits system that would not provide benefits to employees who work fewer than 20 hours per week. That change would not affect current employees, who would be grandfathered, the board decided, but future hires working fewer than 20 hours per week would not be eligible for health-care coverage or Virginia Retirement System benefits.
Fifteen new full-time positions, including bus drivers, general maintenance workers, custodians, safety and security specialists, a warehouse assistant and an accountant, were also cut from Hatrick’s proposed budget.
School staff members made a few recommended revisions before the board discussion, including $4.5 million in cuts to the proposed Technology Education Plan, which originally aimed to provide every public school teacher with a digital device. Instead, staff members proposed a pilot program for fiscal 2014 that would require the purchase of just 650 devices.
Staff members also suggested eliminating the initial request to add a librarian and a library assistant to John Champe High School, a cut that was accepted by the board.
This year marked the second budget cycle in which School Board members, many of whom were elected in 2011 on fiscally conservative campaign platforms, made cuts to the superintendent’s plan before it was presented to the Board of Supervisors for review.
Last year, the School Board trimmed Hatrick’s $831 million plan by more than $12 million before the budget came before the county board.
Supervisors applauded the efforts of the recently elected School Board members to lower costs but also cautioned that more extensive reductions would be required in the future.
As School Board members have scoured the proposed budget in recent weeks, they raised the possibility of closing Lincoln Elementary, one of Loudoun’s oldest and smallest schools. The idea was hardly new — such schools are often scrutinized during tough budget cycles — and, as in years past, the prospect sparked an immediate and powerful response from community members who said they were determined to keep their school. So far, Lincoln Elementary and Loudoun’s other older schools appear to be safe from closing.
But it’s possible that the school budget will face additional cuts as it is reviewed by the county board. Although supervisors recently backed away from a previous goal to lower county property taxes by 3 cents by cutting only the schools budget, a decision that would have left Hatrick’s original plan with a $56 million shortfall, they have repeatedly emphasized that the School Board should find “efficiencies” wherever possible.
The pressure of that expectation was evident throughout last week’s meeting. Before the School Board voted on the changes to the employee health care plans, School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg), who proposed the motion, noted that the adjustment “will go a long way toward showing the Board of Supervisors that we’re serious.”
School Board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) opposed the change. Although current employees who work fewer than 20 hours would be unaffected, the change could threaten future talent recruitment, she said — a point also made by Deputy Superintendent Ned Waterhouse.
But School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) echoed Fox, saying that Loudoun still offered competitive job benefits and noting again the pressure from the school system’s “funding authority,” the Board of Supervisors.
“I think we need to make a good faith effort” to cut costs, Hornberger said. “And I think this is an easy one.”
The School Board is scheduled to present the budget to the supervisors at a meeting March 4, officials said.