Loudoun's Board of Supervisors signed off on an approximately $2 billion fiscal 2015 county budget Wednesday night, finalizing a spending plan that leaves a nearly $38 million funding shortfall for Loudoun County Public Schools.
The supervisors' decision concludes a months-long budget process marked by an outpouring of public comment and tension with education advocates – tension that, at times, bordered on outrage over a perceived cut to local schools.
With a property tax rate of $1.155 per $100 in assessed value, the coming year's budget will hold taxes level for the average county homeowner, a key goal stated by the nine Republican supervisors elected into office in 2011. The county's $600 million allocation to the schools in fiscal 2015 is the largest amount possible without a tax increase.
Supervisors Ken Reid (R-Leesburg), Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) opposed the budget, and Janet Clarke (R-Blue Ridge) was absent from the meeting. Volpe and Delgaudio are firm anti-tax conservatives, and Reid said he would've preferred a slight increase in the tax rate to provide more flexibility to the schools.
While educators, notably members of the Loudoun Education Association, have admonished supervisors for not fully funding the LCPS budget, Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) stressed Wednesday that the school system will receive nearly $70 million more in fiscal 2015 from the current year. Only once since 1990 has the county provided full allocation to the local schools, yet LCPS remains one of the best districts in the region, York added.
“I am weary and quite frankly disappointed in [the School Board's] manipulation of the public and the emotional blackmail,” York said in a prepared statement before Wednesday's meeting. “Last night the School Board made a list of potential cuts in response to our proposed increase to the schools funding by $68.3 million, providing a total appropriation of $600 million – an 8.5 percent increase over last year’s budget with only a 3.3 percent increase in student growth.”
Loudoun Education Association officials contest that increase isn't enough. They point to the fact the School Board, which was elected to manage LCPS, unanimously approved a spending plan that included nearly $110 million in enhancements.
Joey Mathews, president of the LEA, provided an analogy last week for how he views the supervisors' approach to school funding, saying: "You've got a kid that's in college -- he was a freshman last year, this year he's a sophomore. His costs for books and tuition have gone up. They've gone up, let's say, $500. You give that child $300; you have given him more funding, but you have not met the needs of his education. Right now that's where this county is with the Board of Supervisors."
Public support for additional school funding -- beyond the year-over-year increase -- substantially outweighed support for lower taxes during numerous budget input sessions.
Going into Wednesday night's heavily-attended meeting, it appeared a foregone conclusion the supervisors would approve the equalized-tax rate budget. Still, dozens of local teachers and parents turned out at the government center in Leesburg to give one final plea for greater education investments.
“It is unconscionable that one of the wealthiest counties in the nation is not fully funding the budget,” said Jennifer Rivinius, a Leesburg resident.
“I had very low expectations coming in here, and you met them,” said Jeffrey Dunn, a Loudoun County teacher. Dunn went on to urge the 100-person audience to vote out the current Board of Supervisors in November 2015.
Those comments did nothing to sway supervisors, who claim LCPS can fund the bulk of their enhancements with the $68.3 million increase. In a county press release issued March 21 and restated by York on Wednesday, supervisors suggested the following allocation of the increase:
-$14.6 million for compensation increases;
-$7.1 million to fully fund requested class size reductions;
-$23.7 million for additional student population of 2,375 and the opening of three new schools;
-$5 million for technology initiatives with an emphasis on upgrading network infrastructure and refreshing computers;
-$1.6 million to fully fund the School Board’s new initiatives;
-$10.3 million for mandatory Virginia Retirement System contributions;
-$6.3 million for the projected 6 percent increase in healthcare costs; and
-$100,000 for staff assistance for the School Board, similar to the legislative aides members of the Board of Supervisors have.
"We are fully supporting the School Board's operating budget so if it is felt that they need to make cuts, it is not a financial resource issue, it is a management issue," York said. "As it is, the schools will be getting a substantial increase over last year, with minimal student growth."
Much of increase to the school system can be attributed to rising home values and an expanding commercial tax base.
Beyond the LCPS budget, the county plans to fund more than $9 million worth of enhancements within general county government, including more than 80 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs).