$55.9 million budget gap a challenge for School Board
School Board members began the budgeting process Nov. 13 facing the prospect of an estimated $55.9 million less in revenue from county coffers.
The problem for them is that Loudoun County Public Schools has asked for an additional $45.8 million, in large part to open Discovery and Moorefield Station elementary schools next year.
The revenue gap comes from a fiscal plan that includes a three-cent reduction in the residential property tax, voted for 4-1 by the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Government Services Committee Sept. 10, Chairman Scott York opposed.
Ben Mays, CFO of Loudoun County Management and Financial Services, said the gap could shrink significantly if the real estate tax is assessed higher from growth, but it was not likely to disappear.
“I don’t see many likely scenarios where that gap goes away but it could shrink,” Mays said.
The Board of Supervisors originally estimated the gap to be $68.3 million based on information when the motion passed, so it’s conceivable that it could drop again.
It could also shrink or grow based on how much money Loudoun County receives in the state budget.
Superintendent Edgar Hatrick told the School Board it would be near impossible for the school system to absorb such cuts without cutting several programs.
He’s proposed a $867.4 million operating budget for the fiscal year 2014.
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) suggested that the school system develop a list of programs, services or personnel that could be cut to provide guidance for the School Board.
The rest of the board had mixed feelings on the prospect, saying it promoted distrust of the school system and the School Board among the public.
Hatrick said that such a list would take a long time to prepare and that they would look to the Virginia Board of Education’s Standards of Quality, a series of laws that mandates what requirements school systems in the state must meet.
“It would be an ugly list, I will guarantee it,” Hatrick said. ” ... The accusation will be that we picked the things that would excite the public.”
Possible budget items to reduce, Hatrick said, included the $12 million increase set aside for additional employee compensation. He said they could take class sizes up to the state maximum for an estimated $10-$13 million in savings.
That, however, would only save $25 million total, less than half the gap.
“After that, you really have to look at programs,” Hatrick said. “You have to start cutting programs and people ... I won’t enjoy the exercise, nor will the staff. But that’s our job.”
Thomas Reed (at large), also pointed out the School Board was still living with cuts that were incurred during the recession. None had been restored to his knowledge.
“The staff could give us a list, but it would be scary,” Reed said.
He suggested holding off until the next joint meeting with the Board of Supervisors. Debbie Rose (Algonkian), agreed.
“Right now I don’t think a scary list is a good idea,” Rose said. “I think it’ll just get everyone worked up.”
Jeff Morse (Dulles), cautioned against preparing a list to the Board of Supervisors, saying it would give them increased authority to decide what cuts to make.
“What I’m most afraid of is that they’re going to become School Board members,” Morse said. “They’re gonna go a la carte on us.”
Hornberger reiterated that the Board of Supervisors had no authority to the School Board what cuts to make, only to supply a certain amount of funding.
The board ultimately decided to have the school system staff cost out the number of teachers required to adhere to the Virginia Standards of Quality.
Hatrick estimated it would take until January to prepare that information.
Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run), said during the meeting that he had already posed the question to staff.
Most School Board members expressed frustration with the gap during their first budget work session.
Bergel said she was concerned that the Board of Supervisors put out the guidance before public hearings, defining the budget debate going forward.
“I do not understand the elimination of public voice before the process even begins,” Bergel said.
Vice Chair Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said the Board of Supervisors needed to provide a reason for the revenue gap, stating that it appeared to be an arbitrary expression of a desire for cuts.
“This number essentially was pulled out of the air,” Turgeon said.
Rose said she was somewhat sympathetic with the cuts because the school budget comprised about 70 percent of the county budget, overall.
“I do have some empathy for trying to enhance our funding for things like our sheriff’s department and all the vital services our county does perform on 30 percent of the entirety of the budget,” Rose said.
Bill Fox (Leesburg) said he didn’t think the cutbacks would be confined to LCPS.
“I think this is a wrongheaded approach,” Fox said. “I’m pretty sure what they want is for all of their government to tighten their belts.”
The Board of Supervisors and the School Board will meet Wed., Dec. 19.