Transportation, operations and maintenance costs are the line items the Loudoun County School Board has directed the schools superintendent to trim as he searches for $16 million in savings from the adopted budget.
Talks about how to find savings in the School Board’s adopted $859.69 million budget for FY14 started at a meeting last night. Board members took straw votes to give Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick direction about which programs and expenditures to avoid slashing as he prepares a reconciled version of the budget.
In three unofficial votes, the board asked Hatrick not to increase class sizes, avoid employee layoffs, and to come up with a plan to divvy up $12 million that has been earmarked for employee raises.
“With all due respect I hope you’re going to leave me a little wiggle room,” Hatrick said with a laugh after the third vote directed him not to touch the money set aside for raises. “Either that or start writing some checks.”
Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) initiated the straw votes because, if the board’s budget reconciliation were to result in employee layoffs, it must notify employees by next Wednesday.
As several board members listed their spending priorities, most indicated which line items they want protected, and few suggested specific cuts.
Bill Fox (Leesburg) called the elimination of teacher pay raises a cut to the classroom. “We’re not necessarily taking away classroom supplies, but teachers’ pay affects the classroom.”
The repeated sentiment from a few board members was that the transportation department, as well as operations and maintenance costs of other departments, have increased disproportionately to the overall growth of the school system. If reductions are targeted in those areas, Fox said, “we can continue to hold our heads high and know that we continue to provide a great education here in Loudoun County.”
Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) said she wouldn’t be opposed to increasing class sizes in schools where enrollment is below the school district average. She also suggested only giving teachers who earn their National Board Certification a one-time bonus instead of a permanent raise.
She has opposed cuts to transportation during the past few years of budget negotiations because many students in western Loudoun, much of which she represents, already have hour-long bus rides to school.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said she does not want to eliminate freshmen sports teams. But Fox, on the other hand, told board members he wouldn’t be opposed the idea.
In an interview before last night’s board meeting, Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run), chairman of the School Board’s Finance and Facilities Committee, said holding off on the Technology Education Plan may be one budget reduction to consider, Kuesters said. The plan envisions a digital device such as a tablet for every student, from fourth through 12th grade, and is slated to begin this coming fiscal year as a pilot program with 650 devices.
He called cuts that eliminate all employee salary raises or increase class sizes the easy, but lazy way to find savings.
“We don’t want to do easy things,” Kuesters added, “We want to look closely at what expenses are necessary and what are not necessary.”
The first version of the schools’ FY14 budget, drafted by Hatrick, was $876.39 million. It would have been a 6.47 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget, but Hatrick called the spending plan just enough to cover the status quo and pay for the opening of two new schools and an additional 2,500 students.
The School Board trimmed his budget by $16.7 million by eliminating 15 newly requested positions and equalizing what it pays for its two employee health care options. Among other changes, the board also voted to drop all future hires who work fewer than 20 hours a week from health care coverage and Virginia Retirement System eligibility.
After the county Board of Supervisors adopted its budget last week, giving the school system just slightly less than $553.6 million in local funds, several supervisors suggested the School Board find savings by decreasing the employer's share in health care coverage for all current employees who work fewer than 20 hours a week.
Joey Mathews, president of the Loudoun Education Association, said that is what hundreds of school system employees fear. About 580 employees – including school bus drivers, library assistants, teachers assistants and some kindergarten teachers – work fewer than 20 hours a week.
“They signed onto a job that health insurance,” Mathews said. “Don’t take that away from them now.”
Hatrick will present a list of proposed reductions, as well as a plan to give employee raises, at the next School Board meeting April 23.