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Votes

Cool Reception

Proposed school budget additions run into skepticism.

A proposed $101.36 million increase to the public school's operating budget "has no chance whatsoever," according to Supervisor James Burton (I-Mercer). "It's too large of an increase for one year," he said.

On Nov. 25, superintendent of schools Edgar Hatrick presented the School Board with a proposed $491.57 million operating budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2005. The appropriated budget for FY 2004 is $390.21 million.

"Undoubtedly, there will be an increase because of the increase in students," Burton said, adding, "It's not reasonable to adopt a 26 increase in expenditures to cover 8 to 9 percent growth."

Student enrollment is expected to jump from 40,751 students this year to 44,000 students in fall 2004, accommodated by the opening of three new schools and the hiring of 669 new staff members, including 375 full-time teachers.

ENROLLMENT GROWTH and new schools account for 40.3 percent of the FY 2005 budget, a cost of $35.2 million and $5.7 million respectively.

"All of this is predicated on a growth factor that is huge," said School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling), who was reelected to serve in the 2004-07 term. "That's an extremely large number, 4,000 new students. This year we had 3,000 new students."

Enrollment is expected to continue increasing by 8.8 to 9.7 percent a year through 2009 to more than 69,700 students, requiring an estimated 23 new schools. "The growth in the county population is the greatest single factor governing LCPS's operating budget," the executive summary states.

Another 34.4 percent of the increase is attributed to mandatory and continuing obligations, 14.5 percent to personnel compensation increases and 10.8 percent to all other increases. Eighty-eight percent of the overall budget will cover personnel salary and fringe costs, as proposed.

"We haven't really gone through everything yet," said Geurin last week after the first budget work session on Dec. 2. "The School Board will have to make some tough choices, [but] we won't make those choices until January. ... It's going to be extremely difficult for the Board of Supervisors to say yes to an operating budget request that is $88 million more than the current amount."

Geurin referred to the local tax increase from $294.43 million in FY 2004 to $383.05 million in FY 2005.

FUNDING FOR BOTH the schools and the county as currently estimated will require a 20-cent tax increase in the local or real property tax rate, which is at $1.11 for FY 2004, said Kirby Bowers, county administrator. Every cent of the tax rate will account for $5 million in the budget, so that three cents will be needed for county expenses and 18 to 19 cents for schools to fund current estimates.

"Obviously that will not happen," Bowers said. "I can't imagine any governing body coming in here increasing the tax rate by that much. ... I wouldn't propose that."

Take Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio as an example, who was reelected to the Board of Supervisors, along with Burton, Eleanore Kurtz (D-Catoctin) and Scott York (R-At large). "I'm not going to vote for any tax increase regarding the school budget. That's pretty straightforward," said Delgaudio (R-Sterling), a fiscal conservative who says he votes against all tax increases. "I haven't seen anything to change my mind."

Even so, "There's a number of things we have to look at," Delgaudio said. By the time the Board of Supervisors receives the budget, it will have gone through School Board and county administration review. "The School Board is working on it, and I don't want to prejudge what the School Board is sending us. ... It's [like] a Christmas list for Christmas. It's always nice to hear about what you like and want. Sometimes you can't get everything on the list."

The School Board will continue reviewing the budget in work sessions scheduled Dec. 11, Jan. 6, Jan. 8 and Jan. 10 for adoption on Jan. 13.

"Right now, I wouldn't vote for this budget, and I venture to say the new Board of Supervisors wouldn't vote for this budget," said School Board member John Andrews (Potomac).

BOWERS PRESENTED the Board of Supervisors and School Board with a fiscal 2005 outlook at the Dec. 1 Finance and Government Services Committee meeting to give "an initial snapshot of the challenges we have ahead," he said. He estimated that county appropriations will increase $163 million from FY 2004 to FY 2005 given Hatrick's proposed budget, the amount of county and school debt service and the initial estimates of county government increases, the majority related to public safety. Bowers estimated new revenue to be $50 million, leaving a $113 million gap, along with state funding to decrease due to an increase in the composite index for basic aid for schools.

"It demonstrates the magnitude of the cost of growth just for the school system and to meet the demands of an increasing school population," Bowers said. "We will have to find a way to trim where we can and have a serious discussion about funding for much needed services ... It's going to be a difficult, challenging time for the next Board of Supervisors."

Andrews found one of the mandatory increases listed in the proposed budget to be a "big surprise," he said, referring to the rate the public schools will be required to pay for the Virginia Retirement System. The state increased the rate from 9.44 percent to 13.6 percent, requiring the public schools to pay an additional $12.4 million to retired employees.

Another surprise for Andrews is the amount provided for salary increases. "Some of the staffing and pay increases are higher than I would have anticipated and need to be looked at hard," he said.

SCHOOL BOARD member-elect Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) submitted a 10-page list of questions to administration last week to begin work on the budget before he takes office in January with four new School Board members and three incumbent members, Geurin, Andrews, Thomas Reed (At Large) and Robert DuPree (Dulles).

"My approach to the budget is driven by decades of analytical experience," said Ohneiser, a lawyer who works out of his Ashburn home and a former financial analyst. He plans to analyze how the school system is managed and what it does, not just at the proposed changes for the upcoming year, he said, adding, "Not all of my questions are related to why costs are going up."

Ohneiser is concerned about programming, the approach to boundary changes and the lack of a cap on the range of classroom sizes. "All of those things affect funding," he said. "Unless you look at actuals, you don't know if the budget is fiction, an honest depiction of reality. ... Right now, we are lacking the specifics I'm used to in the business world."

As an example, since Hatrick is asking for additional teaching staff, "it would be more meaningful to identify the jobs they do and the schools they do that for," Ohneiser said. "Until we see financials on a school-specific basis, how do we know how the county is managed?"

In addition, Ohneiser wants to see budget cost estimates if the class size is reduced by one, then by two students. "I'm interested in how we can improve the school system and operate it efficiently," he said. "I want to know how much money you need to do a better job."

Andrews is pleased with the current effectiveness of that job. "I think it's one of the under-appreciated factors we're dealing with that we have great schools, great staff and very good test scores at the same time that we're the fastest growing system in the state," he said.