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    The beat goes on: Fund our schools, Loudoun education advocates plead

    Advocates for more education funding in Loudoun County attended a School Board budget hearing earlier this year. Many of the same faces and signs could be seen at a county public hearing Feb. 25. Courtesy Photo
    In recent years' Loudoun budget debates, sprinkled between the voices of loud, demanding education advocates have been local residents pleading for lower taxes and fiscal conservatism.

    This wasn't the case at two county budget hearings Wednesday in Leesburg.

    One speaker after another – roughly 40 in all – pressed the all-Republican Board of Supervisors to fully fund the $981 million budget adopted by the Loudoun School Board.

    If the near past is any indication, Wednesday's speakers should expect to be disappointed.

    Supervisors have repeatedly gone against the public's education wishes and sent the school system tens of millions of dollars less than their budget called for. Last year, fiscal 2015, the shortfall was finalized at nearly $38 million, while fiscal 2014's budget gap was roughly $16 million.

    For fiscal 2016's spending plan, set for adoption in early April, supervisors are looking to approve a budget with an equalized tax rate of $1.13 per $100 in assessed property value. The equalized rate means the average county homeowner won't see an increase in their tax bill. At that rate, the fiscal 2016 shortfall between the county and schools is roughly $25 million.

    Michelle Copeland, a Leesburg mother, told supervisors she'll happily pay higher taxes if it means her fourth-grade son will gain access to foreign language programs and STEM labs.

    “I'm here today to ask you to set the tax rate to fully fund the school budget, even if it means increasing my taxes,” Copeland said, adding she fears that son will be at a disadvantage come time for college admission and scholarships.

    “He's not learning a musical instrument like the kids in my hometown in New York. He's not bilingual like my college roommate's daughter who goes to a public school in Arlington because she has access to a Spanish Immersion program … we don't have any of that here in Loudoun,” Copeland said.

    For their part, supervisors have noted that the school system's allocation has increased by tens of million year-over-year in their term, though that's due largely to a growing population and increased residential and commercial revenues.

    Despite the increase, cost-per-pupil spending in Loudoun has consistently been among the lowest in the region. According to one speaker, Loudoun's cost-per-pupil spending remains roughly $75 less than what it was six years ago.

    "Over the past several years, you have generally approved the proposed budgets of Loudoun's various departments within a percentage point or two of their requests, with the notable exception of LCPS," speaker Matt Durham said. "I'd like you to follow the board of education's lead by approving a budget above the one proposed to you."

    The School Board added more than $1 million to its adopted budget from LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams' proposed spending plan. The School Board's budget is nearly $70 million more than the current fiscal year's.

    Part of the increase is aimed at phasing in full-day kindergarten in Loudoun, which is one of the few localities in the state that doesn't offer the program. Additional funds are also needed, School Board members say, to accommodate a district that has boomed with growth over the past decade.

    Supervisors will hold another public hearing at 9 a.m. Saturday at the LCPS Administration Building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn.

    Contact the writer at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or on Twitter at @TrevorBaratko.

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