The Washington Post

School Board, new superintendent start budget talks early

In the aftermath of this year’s contentious budget cycle, the Loudoun County School Board and the new school superintendent have already opened financial planning discussions for fiscal 2016, more than seven months before supervisors will adopt a budget for the county and its public schools.

At the School Board’s second budget work session this month, Loudoun’s school superintendent, Eric Williams, who took the helm of the region’s fastest-
growing school system in July, offered the board an early glimpse of what the coming budget process might involve.

The officials met Aug. 14 to continue planning for what Williams called “the huge task that faces us over the coming year,” as school officials aim to present a funding request that will meet the needs of a growing school population while withstanding the scrutiny of a fiscally conservative Board of Supervisors.

The process will be guided by one driving question, Williams said: “What budget should we propose to sustain and build on the excellence of Loudoun County public schools?”

During the presentation to School Board members, Williams and E. Leigh Burden, assistant superintendent of financial services, estimated that the school system could require an increase of up to $53 million in funding for fiscal 2016.

The projection includes $17.3 million to cover the more than 1,400 new students who are expected to enter the system — bringing the total student population to more than 74,600 — as well as $2.8 million for costs associated with opening Riverside High School and a new elementary school.

The total also includes $5.7 million to pay for a restructured employee salary scale that was adopted by the School Board in April, as well as about $10 million in increased benefits and $17.2 million for salary step increases for employees.

Williams and Burden repeatedly emphasized that the early numbers were tentative and that many projections, including final student enrollment numbers, “will most certainly change” in the coming weeks.

“This information is only to illustrate potential expenditures — they are not recommendations, and they may or may not be included in the superintendent’s proposed budget,” Burden said.

Among other possible expenditures that could be added to a proposed budget is the cost of a technology initiative Williams calls “One to the World,” in which all students would be urged to take a laptop or tablet to school, and the school system would provide devices to students who do not have one. Williams said that it was too soon to offer an estimate of how much such a program would cost but that it would probably require a multimillion-dollar investment.

Among other possible costs were $15 million to reduce class sizes and cost-of-living salary increases for all employees, which would cost about $7 million per 1 percent increase.

None of these costs are definite or guaranteed to be part of his proposal, Williams said, but are “just things we would be considering.”

This month’s budget work sessions followed one of the most heated budget cycles in recent memory. This year, the Board of Supervisors adopted a fiscal 2015 plan that increased funding for schools by about $70 million but fell about $38 million short of covering the School Board’s spending plan.

The resulting tension fueled sharp comments from county and school officials alike, in public meetings and on social media. At a School Board meeting, former Loudoun superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III warned residents that “you can look forward to an even worse budget year next year, and even more diminution of services — not at the hands of the School Board, but at the hands of the Board of Supervisors,” a comment that Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-Loudoun) said was emblematic of “insanity from the schools” in a subsequent Facebook comment.

As the School Board worked to reconcile its budget with the funding approved by supervisors, it appeared at first that about 100 employees could lose their jobs. But the school system’s personnel department was ultimately able to retain those employees by offering them alternative positions, said Wayde Byard, spokesman for the Loudoun public schools.

“The personnel department worked weekends and nights at the height of hiring season to match people with positions for which they were eligible,” Byard said. “They did a truly heroic job.”

In the upcoming cycle, with new leadership and a much earlier start to budget discussions, school officials hope for a more productive process. At the Aug. 14 work session, School Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said the presentation from Williams was a good start.

“This is exactly the type of information that is helpful for me, and I think it’s going to be helpful for the supervisors, so they can see and get a grasp of what we have to address as a school board and a school system,” Kuesters said. For example, Kuesters cited “the fact that there are increases in costs simply from the fact that we continue to have a school system running.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.


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