Loudoun County School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger gave the first public indication March 8 that Loudoun County Public Schools will be able to make do next year without full funding from the Board of Supervisors.
"I think we can do a $10 million reduction of our request – I understand that's an increase [from the current fiscal year],” Hornberger said. “Ten million dollars, you could do that without it majorly affecting, in my opinion, the salary issue or the class-size issue.”
Hornberger said any cut beyond that $10 million mark would lead him to challenge the Board of Supervisors to examine “what we are here for.”
The School Board chairman's comments came during a joint budget work session between the School Board and Board of Supervisors. Absent from the meeting were Supervisors Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) and Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) and School Board members Debbie Rose (Algonkian), Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) and Brenda Sheridan (Sterling).
The discussion came as supervisors are weighing how much funding to allocate to LCPS, which has adopted a $950 million budget for fiscal 2015. That LCPS budget figure leaves a nearly $40 million allocation shortfall from the county at the equalized tax rate.
Similar to Hornberger's remarks, School Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said the school system will be able to survive without full funding.
“I'm not one to say that you have to fully fund the budget. The sky is not falling if you don't fully fund the budget,” Kuesters said.
During the nearly three-hour meeting, teacher compensation, an enhanced pay scale and technology upgrades dominated the conversation between the two bodies.
School Board member Jeff Morse reasoned that the adopted LCPS budget “is an attempt for us to make up ground that we've lost in the last two years.”
“There are some interval steps that need to be taken and some investments that need to be made,” Morse said.
As the dialogue moved along, supervisors took School Board members to task on their proposed spending.
Looking for ways to trim the schools' budget, supervisors asked whether it would be possible for LCPS to gradually phase in the new salary scale, drawn up to make local teacher pay more competitive with surrounding districts. Nearly $30 million of the School Board's more than $105 million requested increase relates to teacher pay raises and the new pay scale.
School Board members were largely unresponsive to the suggestion of gradual pay reform. In order to make LCPS staff compensation commensurate with surrounding jurisdictions, they said, the new plan needs to be implemented at once.
LCPS has also budgeted nearly $38 million for next year's student and staff growth – this in addition to the new pay scale.
The school system is expected to welcome nearly 2,375 new students next year and open three new schools.
On the technology front, the School Board chairman said increasing bandwidth for cutting-edge tech initiatives is a top priority, especially to make up for years of infrastructure neglect.
LCPS is seeking approximately $14 million for technology upgrades.
The school system is requesting heightened funding from an all-Republican Board of Supervisors determined to keep the county's property tax rate steady – something supervisors say is necessary to lure new business and expand the commercial tax base.
Three days before the joint meeting, a couple supervisors questioned how much energy the School Board expended trying to find cost-savings while developing the LCPS spending plan.
“They have not prioritized,” Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said during a March 6 meeting. “They only held four budget work sessions. One School Board member, who I'll keep anonymous, told me, 'we were too worn out from the redistricting process and looking for a new superintendent [than] to spend the time on the budget.'”
Even without an increase in the county's property tax rate, the school system will receive a nearly $68 million increase in fiscal 2015 compared to the current year because of growing county revenue, supervisors have repeatedly highlighted.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to finalize the fiscal 2015 county budget and the LCPS appropriation in early April.
As an aside during the March 8 conversation, Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) urged School Board members to fund a staff assistant position for themselves, similar to each supervisor's legislative aide.
“You can't find $50,000, $70,000 in your budget to give yourself a staff member?” Letourneau asked.
“I don't want to keep hearing from the School Board that 'we don't have staff,' and a bunch of you have said it to us over time very longingly at the staff we have. Make the investment, it'll pay for itself over time,” he said.