Loudoun County Public Schools on March 18 suffered a major setback in the budget process after the Board of Supervisors indicated they will not fund the nearly $16 million shortfall for the school system.
The blow is the second one for advocates of the school system, after the property tax rate dropped from $1.23 per $100 to $1.205. Those in favor of the $1.23 argued that it would have allowed the school budget to be fully funded.
For the the 2014 fiscal year, Superintendent Edgar Hatrick initially asked for an increase of $56 million before the School Board reduced the request to $31 million, ultimately increasing the total budget 4.4 percent from last year. Between $12 million from the Board of Supervisors and additional state funds, the school budget is still roughly $16 million short.
School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) admitted the dissonance came as a bit of a surprise to the School Board.
“We put out a budget that we think reflects information we've gotten form the budget cycle, so when there's an extra cut at the end it makes everything we've done seem irrelevant,” Fox said.
Now the school system faces the daunting task of adjusting the budget. This begs multiple questions for parents and taxpayers. How does Loudoun's school budget compare to neighboring districts? What will be cut to adjust for the shortfall?
From this year to next, enrollment in Loudoun County Public Schools is projected to increase by 2,566 students, or 3.8 percent, while asking for a budget increase of 4.4 percent. Still, specialized care in the system has ballooned in the last six years, with the English as a Second Language population growing 63.3 percent, the special education population growing 48.5 percent and the free and reduced lunch population growing 67.7 percent.
Moreover, by most metrics, Loudoun spends less than neighboring school districts. Fairfax County Public School's 2013 budget was $2.4 billion, compared to Loudoun's $1.16 billion and Prince William's $1.8 billion. Per pupil, Loudoun spends $11,595, higher than Prince William's $10,163 per student, but lower than Fairfax's $13,564. The state average was $11,316. Loudoun also straddles Fairfax and Prince William with total amount of dollars spent for instruction at 79 percent.
The Loudoun County School Board Finance and Facilities Committee has yet to meet since the budget request was denied and won't meet until April 1 due to spring break.
As such, the LCPS Budget Services Department has only tentatively looked at what to cut following the Board of Supervisor's announcement.
“Staff has started taking preliminary looks,” said Janet Gorski, the director of Budget Services. “But there's not a whole lot going on right now.”
When LCPS experienced a budget shortfall last year, the school system was forced to reduce spending by nearly $11 million.
Much of last year's reduction – more than $5 million – came from reducing or eliminating vacant and new job positions. Another $1.4 million came from program elimination and $1.8 million from reduced technology expenditure.
“When we don't fill positions, that's going to translate into a reduction of services,” Fox said. “We don't have any employees that do nothing.”
Fox said the School Board's main goal is ensuring services reductions don't happen inside the classroom, but warns they may strike in other places, like transportation or custodial work.
“If the supervisors think we can pull out $16 million or $17 million and run the same … That's not what's going to happen,” Fox said.
Ultimately, Fox said the school system will continue to provide a high level of education for its residents, but operations may function differently.
“I'm not going to say the walls to the schoolhouse are going to crumble. We're still going to continue to provide a great education in Loudoun,” Fox said. “But people need to understand that in exchange for lower taxes, there will be a lower amount of services.”