With less than 24 hours before the School Board is scheduled to adopt a budget for fiscal 2014, they’re under less pressure than a few weeks ago but with concrete proposals for cuts.
In December, Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Edgar Hatrick proposed a $876.4 million budget, an increase of $53.3 million over fiscal 2013’s operating budget of $823.1 million.
Hatrick attributed about half the increase, $26.8 million to new enrollment of almost 2,600 students and the opening of Moorefield and Discovery Station elementary schools next year. The increase included a $12 million placeholder for a salary study, $8.2 million to refresh all lab and AV computers in 47 schools, a $5.3 million increase in health care and a $1 million mandatory payment into the Virginia Retirement System.
The school system did not receive the results of the salary study as of the Jan. 17 budget meeting.
The budget gap
In October, the Board of Supervisors passed their preliminary fiscal guidance, calling on the county to estimate the cost of a 3 cent reduction in the equalized property tax rate, coming entirely from school system funding, the largest part of the county budget.
In December, the budget gap for the school system was estimated to be about $55.9 million, which several School Board members called unrealistic.
However, last week the Supervisors voted to direct the County Administrator to make a budget with only a half-cent reduction from the equalized property tax rate, at $1.23 per $100 assessed value.
Finance Committee Chair and Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said the decision for the smaller reduction was based on up to date financial information and the desire for more negotiation.
“We are not in any way saying to the school system, ‘we’re giving you all this money,’” Buona said before the vote. “What are we doing is giving us as a Board of Supervisors flexibility in budget discussions to make trade-offs.”
The uncertainty still leaves the School Board looking for cuts, with few clear answers about where they might be found.
One of the few clear proposals to save money comes from School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg), who has proposed reforming the LCPS health policies so that the school system pays in equal amounts to the Open Access Plan (OAP) and the Point of Sale (POS) plan.
LCPS currently pays more into the POS plan, which is one taken most often by employees. It requires a primary physician but has no co-pay for preventive care, screenings, immunizations, tests or imaging in-network, according to the school system’s website.
The OAP requires no primary care physician or referrals for specialists, but has a $200 deductible per person for in-network and a $400 deductible for a family, according to the school system’s website.
Fox estimated the plan would save LCPS $4 million in its first year and $8 million in subsequent years.
Full-time vs. part-time employees
The School Board has discussed multiple times changing the definition of full-time employees. Currently, 59 full-time employees work 3.5 hours a day, or roughly 17.5 hours a week.
There are 580 employees who work between 17.5 and 30 hours a week, according to the school system.
All of these employees are eligible for all benefits and the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), the state-funded retirement system, when they reach the required age and service requirements.
Fox has said the School Board should consider redefining full-time to 30 hours a week and implementing a tiered benefits system.
“I’m not suggesting that we cut off everyone who is less than 30 hours from health insurance benefits with LCPS,” Fox said. “I understand that this . . . is an essential element of recruiting, when we’re trying to recruit for drivers and other employees with less than six hours.”
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) suggested a tiered health care system, subsidizing employees working at different hours at different rates.
“Right now we don’t have that, it’s either all or nothing,” Hornberger said.
School Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run), agreed that changes could be made to the current benefits system.
“If the incentive for those less than full-time employees is simply for health benefits, I think we can decouple the eligibility for health benefits from the eligibility for VRS,” Kuesters said.
School Board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) objected to the idea of changing VRS, post-employment and health care benefits for employees so quickly and under pressure to cut funds.
“I always saw VRS as a post-employment benefit. VRS allows comfort for employees,” Bergel said. “I don’t care if you work full-time, part-time, whatever . . . It’s not something I think we should take lightly. I urge us to bring this up at a later time.”
Bergel further argued it was unfair for the Supervisors to pressure them into making decisions.
“It’s an unrealistic expectation for a December meeting to tell us the direction we need to go,” Bergel said. “The majority of this board showed good faith when looking at health insurance. It took time, it is unfair for a funding authority to say ‘we’re adding this to the list.’”
The School Board is scheduled to adopt their budget at tonight’s meeting in time to meet County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s date to be included in the county budget.
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