The School Board debated Dec. 19 with the Board of Supervisors over how to manage an estimated $55.9 million gap in the school budget that comes from a proposed 3 cent reduction on the equalized property tax rate.
The School Board criticized the number as arbitrary and without precedent, with Bill Fox (Leesburg), calling it an “attack on education.”
“I’m particularly interested ... in the idea of the cuts resting solely with the schools with no associated cut to the county,” Fox said. “It seems a little bizarre to me.”
Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), chair of the Supervisors’ Finance, Government Services & Operations Committee, defended the idea to cut the tax rate as sound fiscal policy.
“Our expectation at the same time is to keep our tax rates tolerable on our citizens,” Buona said after the meeting.
Buona said the committee juggled multiple scenarios about what to do with the tax rate. One scenario was to keep the same equalized tax rate; the second would be to spend the same amount of absolute dollars as last year.
Ultimately, they went with a third scenario, which was to offset the equalized tax rate, ultimately ending up with the current, proposed 3 cent reduction.
He said they examined several different areas in which Loudoun County had made reforms, including pay increases, retirement and health benefits, and erred on the low side in trying to make spending equal between the county and school system.
“That number was a lot more than three cents,” Buona said. “Three cents, I will say is kind of arbitrary. It was thrown out as an example and that example kind of took hold and it went into our packet.”
Buona said he thought 2 or 2 1/2 cents of savings could be found if the school system adopted the same post-employment benefits practices as the county.
“We’re not saying you have to do that, but it’s a suggestion about where you can get most of this right up front,” Buona said.
Fox said he was concerned that altering those benefits and salary scales would make Loudoun less attractive to current and incoming teachers.
“Certainly the last thing we want is for Loudoun not to be competitive for high-quality teachers as compared to Fairfax, and across the border like Montgomery County,” Fox said. “I’m not sure that there’s a similar dynamic you’re working with on the county side.”
Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles), who voted against the fiscal guidance, said the Supervisors’ direction was the right one to go in. He said the school system was above competing ones in several areas, including benefits offered to part-time employees.
“I wouldn’t suggest that LCPS eliminate benefits for those kinds of employees,” Letourneau said. “But what we discovered is most jurisdictions do, in fact, have a tiered system.”
A Prince William County that employee works between 17.5 and 20 hours per week has an employee contribution of $344.78 to health benefits. In Loudoun, it’s $62.50. In Fairfax it’s $389.14.
“I think that’s the tip of the iceberg when you start making those comparisons,” Letourneau said. “There’s a lot of examination that I would hope the School Board would do.”
School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian), pointed out that as of last year Loudoun County had as many teachers move from Fairfax to Loudoun County as moved from Loudoun County to Fairfax.
“I think it’s the intangibles that will draw people to either one, not the exact dollars,” Rose said.
Fox said he didn’t believe the fiscal guidance was helpful ultimately because $55.9 million couldn’t be found in benefit reductions alone, though he said he wanted the School Board to bring that up as the budget process went on.
“It seems like those cuts should be spread out a bit more evenly, so it doesn’t appear that you’re attacking education,” Fox said.
Buona said that the fiscal guidance was consistent with the Supervisors’ fiscally conservative principles and it was their way of letting the School Board know well before they had to submit their budget.
“We understand you’re opening a few more schools, we understand student population goes up every year,” Buona said.
School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles), criticized the Board of Supervisors for trying to influence how the School Board decided what to cut from the budget.
He said he was afraid the Board of Supervisors could just cut funding for whatever programs in the school system they didn’t like.
“I would expect to see that relationship of mutual trust and respect to resound through these proceedings,” Morse said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At Large), said this was his 18th budget and he was skeptical that $55.9 million in cuts would be crippling to the school system.
“We hear how devastating it’s going to be and how it’s going to wreck the education in this community,” York said. “We have cut several million from the school budget, when you total that up, year after year, we’ve got an excellent education system.”
The Supervisors will revise their fiscal guidance and the equalized tax rate after January when the rate is reassessed. The School Board will have until Jan. 25 to submit its budget.
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