Responding to a prod from county supervisors to pinch pennies, the Loudoun County School Board has spent the past two weeks scrutinizing every line item in the superintendent’s proposed operating budget for next fiscal year in search of savings.
Leading up to the scheduled budget adoption Jan. 24, it’s still anybody’s guess how much the School Board will cut from the $876.38 million spending plan drawn up by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick, or which line items they’ll target.
In recent budget work sessions, a few board members have tipped their hand only slightly on areas they may consider for reductions. Bill Fox (Leesburg) introduced a plan to restructure employees’ benefits compensation that could save as much as $4 million, and Jeff Morse (Dulles) and Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) asked Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick for information regarding possibly closing some of the county’s smallest schools (See full story).
Most of the board members’ questions to the school system’s senior staff honed in on departments that had the most significant budget increase requests. One of those hefty funding requests is $8.2 million in technology upgrades. The upgrades include refreshing computers in 47 schools and providing each teacher with an iPad or some sort of digital device to begin the roll out of the technology plan that will eventually provide each student in most grade levels with a digital device.
The Planning and Legislative Services Department has the most significant budget increases on a percentage basis—a 35.7 percent jump from $1.35 million in FY13 to $1.84 million in FY14.
“What is so significantly different that’s changed from FY12 to FY14,” Morse asked Sam Adamo, director of the department, during a Jan. 2 budget work session.
A look at the history of the Planning and Legislative Services Department shows its budget fluctuates each year. It dipped by 17 percent from FY10 to FY11, rose by 37 percent from FY11 to FY12, and fell again the following year by 11 percent.
Adamo told School Board members he is continuing to hunt for land for three planned elementary schools: one in Dulles North, one in Dulles South and a third in western Loudoun. That search includes studies on each piece of property to evaluate potential traffic impacts, environmental impacts and sewage disposal feasibility, among a long list of other tests.
“If we’re to get out in front of this in terms of the viability of a school site we need that money,” Adamo explained. “In the past we had money from land accounts to pay for this.”
His department has been using money from bonds passed in 2004, 2006 and 2007 to fund its effort to acquire land for school sites, but much of that has been spent, Adamo said in an interview last week. The 2007 bond referendum included $15.5 million to purchase land for a western Loudoun high school north of Rt. 9, an elementary school in the west and an elementary school in the Dulles area. The department found land for what became Woodgrove High School and a Dulles area elementary school. But the department has spent almost $2 million searching for a western Loudoun elementary school site, and still has not found a parcel that can be agreed on, Adamo said.
“The issue that you get is everybody has a different opinion on where it’s best to locate a school, and you keep looking and looking,” he added. “Once we give it to the policy makers, if they don’t like it or the public doesn’t like it, then you have to start over.”
The slight increase in funding from the Department of Instruction—which claims 5,491 of the school system’s positions—also caught the School Board’s attention.
“We’ve been told [the increase] is all in personnel, but here’s the most personnel increase in the entire budget and we’re only seeing a 1.5 percent increase,” Fox said, noting the disparity of the overall 6.47 percent operating budget increase as compared with FY13.
Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent of instruction, said the school system experienced the largest retirement class last year with more than 150 employees retiring.
“We hired a lot of relatively new teachers,” she said of the resulting savings.
E. Leigh Burden, assistant superintendent of the Business and Financial Services Department, noted also that the $12 million for the superintendent’s proposed 2 percent salary raise for all school system employees is calculated in a separate section of the budget.
Hatrick’s recommended budget also includes 333 new positions to accommodate a 2,500-student enrollment boost and to staff Discovery and Moorefield Station elementary schools, which will open next fall.
Along with pressure from the Board of Supervisors to find savings in the superintendent’s budget, the School Board will most likely need to find an additional $900,000 in savings in light of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed budget. McDonnell’s proposal, which was presented one week after Hatrick’s budget, would give Loudoun schools $2.6 million more in state funds to pay for a portion of a 2 percent raise for school positions that are required by the state.
However, the governor’s plan, if adopted by the General Assembly, would result in a net decrease of $900,000 in state funds from Hatrick’s budget because it removes the cost-of-competing adjustment, which provides more money for public schools in Virginia’s most expensive counties.