As the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors tackles the fiscal 2019 budget, some are questioning why an 8 percent increase is needed for the school district when student enrollment only rose by about 2 percent this year.
That query and more will be debated in the coming weeks. The Loudoun County School Board’s $1.2 billion request is by far the largest in the proposed $2.3 billion general budget.
Public hearings on the 2019 budget are slated for Feb. 27 and March 1 and 3. The board of supervisors plans to adopt a budget by April 3. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
The 8 percent increase is needed to hire more teachers in new schools, such as the Academies of Loudoun, and to maintain class sizes as enrollment grows in many schools, school officials said. They also want to raise teachers’ salaries, expand kindergarten classes and purchase updated textbooks.
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet presented on Feb. 14 three scenarios based on an equalized tax rate of $1.09 per $100 of assessed value and rates at $1.10 and $1.08. The present tax rate is $1.125, while the equalized rate takes into account average real property assessment increases.
The proposal at the $1.09 rate provides for an increase of $53.5 million to the school district over fiscal 2018. There would be a $10.8 million difference between that proposal and the school district’s request. The school district would receive an additional $8.2 million at the $1.10 rate, while the difference would widen at the $1.08 level.
In addition to the general budget, officials proposed a $2.4 billion capital improvement program for fiscal 2019 through 2024. Road improvements and other transportation projects would take the biggest chunk at $1.27 billion, followed by school projects at $484 million.
School officials want to increase employment by almost 500 full-time teacher and staff positions. Besides the Academies of Loudoun, more employees are being hired for Goshen Post Elementary School and Willard Intermediate School , which are also slated to open this fall.
The district’s request provides for an average teacher salary increase of 3.2 percent, along with an average rise among all position scales of 2.2 percent. Compared to four other Northern Virginia school systems — Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William — Loudoun pays the highest starting salaries for teachers, including $55,444 for those with a master’s degree. But Loudoun ranks fourth in salaries for mid-career teachers, though the gap has narrowed in recent years, according to school district figures.
Officials want to see the number of full-day kindergarten classes rise from 205 to about 235 next fiscal year, while half-day kindergarten classes would decline from 56 to 13. Elementary schools that would see changes to all full-day kindergarten classes under the proposal include Arcola, Buffalo Trail, Cedar Lane, Dominion Trail, Hutchison Farm, Legacy, Liberty, Moorefield Station and Pinebrook.
Another aspect that requires more funds is that the population of students with special needs — who require more resources — has grown “considerably faster” than the overall student enrollment, officials said. Other proposed increases would go towards expanding mental health services for middle school students and upgrading school security.
Loudoun is spending $13,688 per pupil this school year, lower than all but three of ten districts surveyed in an annual review by the Washington Area Boards of Education. The WABE formula, part of an annual guide compiled by Fairfax County Public Schools staff, excludes most capital costs and debt service.
School staff members, led by Superintendent Eric Williams, do a good job identifying areas for improvement in efficiency, said School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), who was unanimously re-elected as chairman for this year. The board conducts an annual detailed analysis of expenditures, including a department-by-department review, he said.
Board members have been “very diligent” in working to combine services and create efficiencies, added board member Jill Turgeon, who represents the Blue Ridge area.
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 two — Arlington County and Falls Church — grew more than Loudoun’s 3.3 percent in fiscal 2018 over the previous year. And those two have enrollments much smaller than Loudoun’s roughly 81,000 this year.
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.
If the budget is not changed, the average spending per pupil would rise 4.1 percent to $14,253 next fiscal year. That would still put Loudoun among the lowest-spending districts.