In a meeting with the Board of Supervisors on Monday, the Loudoun County School Board presented its case for full funding of a $1.07 billion budget it is seeking for fiscal 2017.
Schools Superintendent Eric Williams outlined a plan that would add hundreds of teachers and other school-based staff members to keep pace with enrollment growth, give employees a pay increase and more than double the number of students in full-day kindergarten.
In asking the supervisors for a $58.1 million increase from the county to fund the budget, the school board is forcing Loudoun officials to consider the possibility of raising taxes.
On Feb. 10, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet proposed a budget that would give the schools an increase of $26.9 million, leaving them $31.4 million short of the school board’s funding request. To meet the proposed budget, the county would have to raise the real estate tax rate from $1.135 to $1.17 per $100 of assessed value, Hemstreet said.
The student population is expected to grow next year by 2,910 students, or 3.8 percent, which accounts for some of the additional funds the school board is seeking.
The board is also asking for $32.4 million to add 361 staff positions to keep up with the growth. Some of those positions will be needed to open Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Ashburn in the fall. However, the school system needs most of the new teachers and other personnel just to maintain current class sizes and levels of service, Williams said.
Demographic changes are also having an effect. Three groups that require more resources are growing at a faster pace than the overall population, he said.
In the past eight years, total student enrollment has gone up 33 percent, Williams said. In the same period, the number of economically disadvantaged students has increased 109 percent; the special education population has gone up 52 percent; and the number of English language learners has grown 65 percent.
The changing demographics “create resource challenges because of the additional resources needed to serve those students,” Williams said.
An additional $32.4 million of the requested increase would go toward employee salaries and benefits. The budget includes a 2.2 percent step increase for most employees, plus funds to boost the salaries of experienced teachers who are midway through their careers.
Loudoun’s pay scale for starting teachers is competitive with neighboring jurisdictions, Williams said. However, the county ranks relatively low in its pay for teachers with master’s degrees and 10 years’ experience, he said.
“The kids only get one crack at a K-12 education, and so we want to have excellent teachers in every classroom,” Williams said. “Having a competitive pay structure is . . . one important part of attracting and retaining a high-performing team.”
The budget also includes $9.7 million to increase the number of students in full-day kindergarten from 34 to 75 percent. The school system currently has a capacity of 1,665 students in full-day kindergarten. The additional funding would boost that number to more than 3,800.
Much of the discussion at the meeting surrounded student enrollment projections, which are higher than anticipated. That is placing pressure on both boards to accelerate construction of new schools.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) asked how the projections got “so out of whack.”
School board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) responded that townhouses are larger than they used to be and are housing more students than had been projected. He also pointed out a trend in some communities of larger extended families or multiple families living in the same home. “Those are starting to stack up and create larger and larger populations,” he said.
Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said that the school board needs to “take another look at how you’re projecting ‘by right’ development” — residential development that can be built at densities permitted under current zoning.
“There haven’t been a lot of rezonings in the last four years . . . and so the developers are starting to go ‘by right’ because they can only sit on the land so long,” Buona said. “I really think that’s a piece of your methodology that you need to look at right now.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.