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Board Grapples with Budget Demands

LEA members want to add to proposed salary increase.

Teachers and classified staff asked for salary increases at the public hearing Dec. 10 for the School Board's proposed budget.

"Some say we can't afford to stay on top," said Carol Beattie, member of the Loudoun Education Association (LEA), in reference to a proposed 2 percent salary scale adjustment for staff that is 1 percent less than last year. "If we begin to slide backwards, where will it end? Can our children wait until the ... economy improves? ... We must continue to raise salaries to maintain quality education."

Beattie asked the School Board to increase salaries by 3 percent for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2004 operating budget, which Superintendent Edgar Hatrick presented to the School Board at the Nov. 26 board meeting. He proposed $309.2 million in local appropriations, a $44.7 million increase from last year and a $22 million cut from the FY03-04 proposed biannual budget. The majority of the proposed increase is attributed to the cost of opening five new schools and adding another 2,700 students to next year's enrollment.

"We can't afford the luxury of taking our teachers for granted," said Claire Scholz, LEA president. "A highly qualified staff is essential to student achievement."

School Board members differed on whether to support the requested salary increase.

"We are talking about a 15 percent increase in the cost of their health care," said Warren Geurin (Sterling) about the proposed increase that is outlined in the 2004 operating budget. "Even with 3 percent, they're not going to realize more money in their paycheck."

John Andrews (Broad Run) disagreed, saying a 2 percent increase will be "enough" with the step increase, which for teachers averages 3.8 percent. "That's as good as you can get compared to what everyone else is having to deal with in the economy," he said.

"We have to base the raises on what we believe the Board of Supervisors is going to fund," said School Board Chairman Joseph Vogric (Dulles). "We have given significant raises over the past couple years to improve the salary scale and to bring everyone up to parity with surrounding school systems."

ANOTHER FIVE SPEAKERS asked the School Board for pay parity for Support Services maintenance staff.

"The people that are being hired now are making more money, and we're being asked to train them. It's not fair," said Linda Cumberland, classified employee and LEA member.

Maintenance employee Summers Tillett said morale is down for veterans on the staff. "Compensate the guy that's been here and bring him up to speed," he said.

Bill Wilson, a recent hire to the staff, said as a mechanic, he makes $5 more an hour than does Tillett, who is his lead.

Geurin agreed that the lack of parity is "unfair." "Those guys are exactly right. They were hired in at a higher salary than the scale. The scale is not enough to hire them, so we hire them at a higher [rate]," he said.

School press officer Wayde Byard said specialists typically are paid more to equalize out their salaries. "[We] have to be competitive with the market. Of course, we try to work out pay equities. It's a constant battle to make sure everyone's pay is equal," he said.

Other speakers asked for full funding of the budget and said they support a tax rate that would allow the School District to continue existing initiatives. Some of the initiatives include the full-day kindergarten at Sully Elementary School for at-risk students, the elementary school foreign language and after-school string instrument programs, and block scheduling at the secondary level. Hatrick did not request any funding for new initiatives, working with the Board of Supervisors' targeted funding limit of a $22 million increase from the FY03 budget. Last year, the School Board requested a $59 million increase from the previous year and the Board of Supervisors funded $53 million of the request.

"The supervisors seriously misunderstand the real world," Geurin said. "The idea that you would take last year's per pupil spending and say to us our target is only 1 percent growth in per pupil spending is backwards. We don't know what per pupil spending would be until we conclude our budget."

Hatrick's $22 million budget reduction gives the School Board a starting point to look for additional cuts, Andrews said. "The superintendent did a good job of realizing the economic crisis the state is in and the county. ... He's made it difficult because he's reduced it by so much."

"We're going to be going through the budget to make sure everything that should be included will be included or if savings could be realized," Vogric said. "If we want to have a school system as good as the one we have, we need to fund it. It's important to keep pace with salaries, programs we have and class sizes. We have to be very careful not to slip back."

Since Nov. 26, the School Board has held four work-sessions on the budget and has another three scheduled for Jan. 7, Jan. 9 and Jan. 11 with a move toward adoption on Jan. 14.