On Jan. 7, I will present to the School Board a budget that will lay out the funding needed by Loudoun County Public Schools for the 2014-2015 school year. As I prepare for that presentation I realize several things about the current state of funding for public education in Loudoun County.
First, we are reaching a tipping point in being able to meet the demands of continued enrollment growth (over 2,300 new students each year) while maintaining the programs and offerings that make LCPS one of the finest school systems in America. Second, this budget will be offered in a County once again described as the wealthiest in America based on median household income. And third, there will be and should be serious debate about what we want for our children, our future.
Each year in this season of light, joy and understanding, we are confronted by a lack of honest community conversation about the future. Lines get drawn ahead of time which cannot be violated, entrenched positions are repeated, but neither is subjected to serious debate. As I prepare to present my last proposed budget as your superintendent, I have decided that I cannot leave it to my successor to share some truths about our financial condition. The time to put the issues on the table is now.
Some facts are clear. No county in Virginia has ever grown at the rate of Loudoun for a sustained period and maintained the low real estate tax rate that we have enjoyed. Look to the history of Fairfax and Prince William for case studies of the effects of residential development in creating growing demands for services. Both counties lived through many years of tax rates of $1.50 or more, something Loudoun has never experienced.
Each year we, as a county, try to do more with less. We want excellent schools, strong police protection, exemplary parks and recreation, library resources, and social services. Add to this mix the fact that our state has failed to fund that for which it is constitutionally responsible — transportation. Again, like Fairfax, Prince William, Virginia Beach, and other rapidly growing areas before us, we have had to take on the state’s responsibility for funding transportation needs. For the first time in decades we see some transportation funding coming from the state, but it is still insufficient. All of this means that our elected leaders have to balance extensive local government needs in an environment where it is hard to converse beyond the tax rate.
On Jan. 7, I will give an accurate accounting of the financial needs of our school system — needs that affect the education of every one of the 70,000 students enrolled in our schools. As I attended this year’s Excellence in Education Banquets, which recognized hundreds of students and teachers, as I follow the myriad ways in which our students extend beyond the academic basics, I realize that our investment in them is an investment in our future.
We can certainly view financial support for our schools as a current burden or a future investment. Whatever the view, I hope that this year we, as a community, can have a serious conversation about the future we want to fund through our taxes. We have delayed and deferred too much in recent years. Critical technological infrastructure and county and school employees have borne the brunt of budget decisions that focused primarily on tax rate. More importantly, our young people — who are our future — have borne the real burden in larger classes and threatened diminishments of the opportunities available to them in our schools and in our community — all in the wealthiest county in America.
Once the dust of my budget proposal settles I hope that all of us will be open to honest, productive conversations. Personal attacks that question people’s motives do not advance the discussion of our community’s genuine needs. The good news for us is that when Fairfax chose to invest in its schools and infrastructure for many years with a tax rate of more than $1.50, they laid the foundation of becoming one of the most productive business and commercial centers in the metropolitan area. Are we prepared to make a similar investment in Loudoun’s future?
I hope that this season will truly be one of light because our children and our future deserve no less.
Edgar B. Hatrick
Superintendent, Loudoun County Public Schools