It is quite overwhelming to review the massive 343 page 2018 Adopted Budget of the Loudoun County Public School system. Most striking is on page 1, showing the total one-year budget of $1,552,671,496.
While Loudoun County spends less per student to operate the district than most other Washington, D.C., districts, pressures like the need for new facilities and higher compensation will make maintaining that trend more challenging, school board members say.
“We are going to have to look at more ways to cut back,” said Loudoun County School Board member Jill Turgeon, who represents the Blue Ridge area.
Many services and positions cut during the 2007-09 recession have been restored, and Loudoun is making progress in compensation compared with districts that spend more per student, said board Chairman Jeff Morse, who represents the Dulles area. Spending more for compensation and Metro improvements are among near-term factors that will make it more challenging to keep budget increases to 7 percent or so, he said.
Other near-term needs include textbooks – many of which are some 15 years old – and bus upgrades, Turgeon said.
Loudoun spent $13,121 per pupil in fiscal 2017, lower than all but three of ten districts surveyed in an annual review by the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE). The regional group formed in 1971 to review common issues and improve cooperation. The WABE cost formula, part of an annual guide compiled by the staff of Fairfax County Public Schools, includes most operational spending but excludes most capital costs and debt service.
Arlington County – the highest spender in 2017 – allocated almost $6,000 more per student than Loudoun, while lowest-spender Prince William County budgeted some $2,000 less. Loudoun has remained in that lower-than-average position for at least the last decade. In fiscal 2007, Prince George’s County was the lowest at $10,332 but saw per-pupil costs rise by 34 percent. Loudoun’s costs have only increased by 9 percent in the past decade.
District officials, led by Superintendent Eric Williams, work hard to contain spending, Morse said. The staff does a good job identifying areas for improvement in efficiency and the board conducts an annual detailed analysis of expenditures, including a department-by-department review, he said.
“We are still able to sustain the highest caliber educators, staff and support services, reflected in the superior quality of public education in Loudoun,” Morse said.
Board member have been “very diligent” in working to combine services and create efficiencies, Turgeon said. Williams, who was hired in 2014, has done a good job “listening to the board and making sure we are looking closely at budgets,” she said.
Loudoun has more students to educate than most area districts, and enrollment is growing at a faster rate. Of the ten districts, WABE examined, only three – Arlington County and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church – grew more than Loudoun’s 3.1 percent in fiscal 2017 over the previous year.
And those three had enrollments much smaller than Loudoun’s roughly 79,000 in 2017. Actual enrollment in Loudoun was a little higher than the projected figure WABE used, making the 2017 student growth rate 3.6 percent, according to district figures.
This year’s enrollment increased by about 3 percent to some 81,000. Loudoun ranked third in 2017 student population in Virginia, behind only Fairfax County and Prince William County, which had more than 187,000 and 89,000 students, respectively. A decade ago, Loudoun ranked fifth with about 50,000 students, according to state Department of Education figures.
Opening almost three schools annually
That growth poses fiscal challenges since the district has built almost three schools each year in the past two decades and added staff to keep up the growth. Employee salaries and benefits comprise the vast majority of school operational costs.
Between fiscal 2001 and 2017, Loudoun opened 45 schools – 26 elementary, nine middle and 10 high schools. One reason Turgeon supported a $3.1 million addition at Lucketts Elementary was to avoid the much greater expense of building a new school in that area in the near term.
Building so many schools in recent years has helped Loudoun “become experts in construction and lead the state in the number of energy-efficient schools,” Morse said.
The WABE guide containing the per-pupil cost figures for fiscal 2018 is due out in early November. In 2017, Loudoun’s spending rose about 3 percent from fiscal 2016.
The Loudoun board recently approved about a 5 percent increase in tuition rates for out-of-county students to $9,925 and for out-of-state students who attend Loudoun schools to $14,332 for fiscal 2018. So the 2018 per-pupil cost is expected to be an increase in the range of 3 to 5 percent.
Board members focus much attention on how faculty and staff are distributed within schools, said Turgeon. Some 93 percent of Loudoun’s employees were based in schools in 2017, the second-highest percentage among the districts the WABE reviewed. “We could see some differences [in how funds are spent] because of that,” Turgeon said.
The larger student enrollment can work in Loudoun’s favor, said board member Tom Marshall, who represents Leesburg. Smaller districts like in Arlington, Falls Church and Alexandria spend more per pupil because there is less opportunity for “economics of scale,” he said.
“Loudoun has been able to save more per pupil because of the larger school population,” Marshall said.
Loudoun spends more disproportionately on special education and the gifted programs, leaving a larger number of students with a less focused emphasis, Marshall said. “Those students do quite well, but I think we need to make sure their classes have our best teachers in critical areas like Algebra I,” he said.
There should also be fewer distractions that may occur with “mainstreaming special populations” in critical classes needed by all students for them to do their best, he said. Marshall said he is not against special education, mainstreaming or gifted programs. “I just feel the average student needs more support in a competitive school system,” he said.
Marshall was among the minority on the board who recently opposed continuing to send gifted students to the Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology, a magnet school in Fairfax County. Spending that money was not necessary since the district is opening the Academies of Loudoun next fall, he said. That campus is combining three magnet programs.
The money spent to send students to Thomas Jefferson could be “reallocated to helping all of our students be successful,” Marshall said.