The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors had a gauntlet of questions and concerns prepared when the Loudoun County School Board presented its $1.493 billion adopted fiscal 2022 budget in a semi-virtual joint meeting Monday night.
Before LCPS Interim Superintendent Scott Ziegler’s official budget presentation, School Board Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling District) offered a brief introduction in which she emphasized the importance of planning beyond the school system’s return to hybrid learning, which is set to begin Feb. 16.
“While the last year has not been a traditional school year, as we look forward to our return to hybrid next week, we also need to have a forward-looking vision of a full-time return to our buildings,” she said.
Sheridan further outlined several of the budget’s top priorities, including the following: closing education gaps for English learners and special-education students via summer programs; offering an alternative high school housed at Sterling’s Park View High School, which will focus on students who have experienced interruptions in their education; the expansion of LCPS’s Virtual Loudoun online learning program; and enhancement of staff salaries.
“Our people are our greatest resources,” she commented on the lattermost point. “Our licensed professionals have answered the call to change the way they do their job, learn new tools, be engaging, and they are working harder than ever. They are heroes.”
Following Ziegler’s detailed, nearly hour-long presentation, each county supervisor had the chance to pose questions to the School Board regarding the budget, starting with Caleb Kershner (R-Catoctin). While he expressed his appreciation for the School Board’s efforts in assembling a budget, he outlined his concerns that the School Board is “not fully hearing the pleas of many of our parents,” and that many LCPS students in the past year “have basically missed out on an education, or certainly [received] a sub-par education.”
He also said he distributed a survey to his constituents regarding their experience with LCPS since the onset of COVID-19 last March. According to Kershner, 72 percent of the nearly 800 respondents deemed LCPS’s overall decision-making in that time either “mediocre” or “bad;” 50 percent expressed “no confidence at all” or were “not very confident” in LCPS’s ability to stick to goals and deadlines for returning children to in-person learning; 43 percent either have, want to or are considering withdrawing their children from LCPS; and 63 percent support holding part of the school system’s requested budget in reserve until its actual enrollment numbers and plan for returning to full in-person learning next school year become clear.
“I know it’s been an extremely difficult year,” Kershner said. “Challenges have not been easy. We have returned to hybrid school, and it’s a good start, but our students, I think, need a lot more. We need to get our education system back on track. We have many health, mental health issues that are going on with our students, we have neglect issues that have gone unnoticed and we have countless other education issues.”
On the topic of the impact of distance learning on students’ well-being, Supervisor Juli Briskman (D-Algonkian) asked Ziegler and the School Board about the number of student suicides LCPS has seen since COVID-19 began. Ziegler replied that LCPS does not report the number of student suicides out of confidentiality and respect for families involved.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D) said that she, as a mental health professional by trade, does not believe the school system is legally barred from sharing such information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
LCPS Interim Superintendent for Pupil Services Asia Jones said she would inquire as to whether special circumstances further preclude the school system from disclosing information on student suicides.
Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn) said he planned to introduce a motion to the Board of Supervisors to withhold 10 percent of the School Board’s adopted budget “until LCPS produces a detailed, fixed-date-certain plan for when to return to 100 percent in-person learning.”
Sheridan, as well as School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles District) and Vice Chairwoman Atoosa Reaser (Algonkian District) took vocal issue with this plan.
“I don’t think holding back part of our budget is part of the solution,” Morse said. “If we can’t plan because we don’t have the budget in hand, then we can’t hire and we can’t tell the teacher what their pay scale’s going to be.”
Sheridan deemed Turner’s plan to withhold part of the budget a “threat,” saying it would “have a direct impact on our ability to hire teachers this spring — high-quality teachers that our community demands while our country is also facing a teacher shortage.”
The Board of Supervisors also seemed to doubt that LCPS will, as projected, experience enrollment growth of 7.3 percent next school year, especially given that the pandemic caused the School Board’s fiscal 2021 enrollment projection to overshoot the actual number of students by 4,251. Reducing the enrollment projection would likely result in a substantial budget decrease.
“I think there’s going to be some dropoff with some students not returning, because they’ve either gone to homeschooling and the parents are liking it and the students are liking it because of the situation that we’re in, or just moving on to a private school,” Vice Chairman Koran Saines (D-Sterling) said.
School Board member Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge District) said the enrollment projection was in line with those of several neighboring school districts. During last week’s School Board budget approval meeting, Serotkin made the motion to reduce the enrollment projection from its originally forecasted 9.8 percent increase, resulting in budget savings of $6.384 million.
Further, some supervisors, including Kershner, asked the School Board to report on how much money LCPS spent and saved over the last year in operating mostly through distance learning, a change that ostensibly reduces facilities, transportation and other costs. Randall and Sylvia Glass (D-Broad Run) also requested the School Board clarify which budget items are first, second and third priority for LCPS, rather than lump them all together as top priority.
“I guess I’m concerned that what you’re asking here, it’s a lot here, and there are certain things that we’re not too sure of your line items and what’s more important to you,” Glass said.
“To come say, ‘Fully fund the budget,’ with no priorities in line … I think there needs to be a give and take in this discussion,” Randall added.In closing, Randall commended the efforts of Loudoun County’s “amazing” teachers during the past year of distance learning while also stressing the importance of returning to in-person learning, opining that for every student who is thriving in a virtual setting, there’s a student who is struggling.
“No one believes that it’s easy, but I think one thing that we all can agree on is that our kids deserve the best education possible,” she said. “None of us ran for these jobs to do what is easy, but all of us ran for these jobs to do what is the best thing for our constituents, including the smallest and youngest of our constituents.”