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School Board Grapples with Budget Cuts

Superintendent of Schools Edgar Hatrick had a choice: to cut $12 million for attention or to spread the cut across the Fiscal Year (FY) 2004 operating budget with as little impact as possible.

Hatrick chose the second option instead of inciting the public about losing key programs. He presented the School Board with a list of 43 proposed cuts.

"This was a difficult exercise," Hatrick said at the March 25 School Board meeting. "This exercise comes to us because of a gap in funding from your budget and the [Board of Supervisors’] appropriations resolution."

The School Board adopted a $400.2 million budget on Jan. 14. Two months later, the Board of Supervisors passed the annual appropriations resolution with $388.2 million for the School District, leaving the School Board to grapple with a $11.998 million gap.

For the past several weeks, Hatrick and senior staff members identified $12.002 million worth of cuts, beginning the work early with the expectation that cuts would occur. They selected items that could be reversed if funding became available and that did not cut entire programs or move them so far back they became irreplaceable, Hatrick said. The Board of Supervisors indicated that if a lawsuit filed against the county’s plans to refinance the County Administration Building is dropped, the $2 million the county expects to save will go toward the School District’s operating budget, reducing the cut to $10 million, Hatrick said.

AS SUGGESTED, the School Board agreed to hear Hatrick’s list and to save questions and comments for a work session they scheduled on March 31, where the board adopted $12.002 million worth of cuts, with some changes to the list. Board members commented during regular board comments.

Chairman Joseph Vogric (Dulles) "shamed" County Administrator Kirby Bowers and the county budget process. "We’re taking a step backward. It’s a disappointment. It’s a shame," he said. "It’s not a direction we need to go."

Hatrick agreed. "This is a painful process. It’s not something I would expect to happen in a county as wealthy as we are," he said. "We shouldn’t be where we are, but we are where we are."

In the past three years, the School Board had an "excellent record" with the Board of Supervisors, including when the board fully funded the School Board’s budget request in 2000 and 2001, said Warren Geurin (Sterling), adding that the funding level gave the School District an opportunity to reduce class size and raise salaries. "It’s difficult. It’s heartbreaking," he said. "Three years of remarkable progress … will be slowed or perhaps stopped through this budget reduction."

"This is what $12 million means," Vogric said.

The items on Hatrick’s proposed list of budget cuts that the School Board adopted include:

* Reducing salary increases by 1 percent for all employee scales to save $2.6 million.

* Adding 0.5 students to the grade K-8 class size and cutting 45 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff positions to save $2.7 million.

* Delaying implementation of the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) program to additional schools and cutting seven FTE teaching positions to save $434,500.

* Changing the time principals work for opening new schools from one year to six months to save $113,300.

* Delaying the addition of seven FTE high school deans to save $443,600.

"What makes it difficult is the size of the cut," said School Board member Geary Higgins (Catoctin). "Public education is job number one of county government, but somehow we got shortchanged on that this time."

THE SCHOOL BOARD restored the following:

* Adding two new all-day kindergarten classes at a second school site in addition to Sully Elementary School, a cost of $197,500. The school site has not been selected

* Implementing a second activity bus run, a cost of $181,200.

* Providing system-wide training and continuing education, a cost of $81,100.

To restore the three programs, the School Board agreed to phase in an additional step on the salary scale, saving $459,800. A step added to the top of the pay scales for teaching, administrative, auxiliary and classified staff will be implemented in two years instead of in one, which would have cost $1.6 million.

In other business, the School Board named two high schools during the regular board meeting. The board approved naming HS-2 in South Riding as Freedom High School and HS-4 in the Brambleton Subdivision as Briar Woods High School, as suggested by the two committees the School Board appointed to select possible school names. Both schools are scheduled to open in fall 2005.