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Votes

Schools Face $12 Million Cut

Supervisors Approve $1.11 Tax Rate

A six-cent property tax increase means a $12 million shortfall for the Public Schools, enough of a cut to "concern" Supervisor Mark Herring (D-Leesburg).

"Too much was taken out," Herring said. "I thought there were some areas that could be cut without impacting instruction but not $12 million."

The School Board asked for a $41.3 million increase from the previous year though the Board of Supervisors targeted the Public Schools to a $22 million increase for Fiscal Year (FY) 2004.

AT THE MARCH 18 budget meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a $27.9 million increase for school operating costs, capital projects, asset replacements and debt services, providing a total of $504 million for FY-04. The county's funding decreased by $2.4 million, or 1.7 percent, to $252 million to operate the county government for the fiscal year from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004.

"I'm disappointed," said School Board Chairman Joseph Vogric (Dulles). "I hope it's something that's temporary in nature, a case of hard times this year, so we don't start going backward with the improvements we made to the school system."

The cut could mean a smaller raise for school staff, proposed at a 2 percent increase for all employee scales and another 2 percent for each step of the scale, said School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling). "We have made remarkable progress over the last three years. In some areas, it's a step backwards, and in other areas, it stops our progress cold," he said. "It's unwarranted. It's unwise, and it's unnecessary, except it's necessary now."

As suggested by Superintendent Edgar Hatrick, the cost of living adjustment (COLA) could be reduced to 1 percent to save $2.6 million; class size could be increased by 0.5 students per class by hiring 45 fewer teachers next year to save $2.7 million; and support service positions could be reduced in various offices, along with other cuts to reach the $11.9 shortfall. The School Board is scheduled to begin budget discussions on March 25, when Hatrick will present a five-page list of suggested cuts.

"We're going to have to look at all the alternatives. ... It's not going to be pleasant," said School Board member Robert DuPree (Dulles).

THE FISCAL PLAN provides 71 percent of $406 million in local tax revenues for the schools. The county's portion is 28 percent with another 1 percent allotted to the Comprehensive Services Act (CSA) for At-Risk Youth.

Funding for the school system and general county government totals $789 million, requiring the real property tax rate to increase to $1.11 per $100 in assessed value. The tax rate increase and an increase in the value of residential property assessments will pump the average property tax bill by 14 percent, or $404, while the personal property tax will remain the same at $4.20 per $100.

The fiscal plan is "a balance between what we want to do and can do. I think it's the best we can do this year," said Supervisor William Bogard (R-Sugarland Run). "This is a bad year. The state is certainly not going to come through with the money. The federal government is going to be tight. We don't have anyone to foist it onto."

Even so, "there were some places that could be cut," said Herring, adding that he did not like the process the Board of Supervisors used to reach a final decision on the fiscal plan when five board members were prepared to agree to the budget in the first work session. He and other board members slowed the process down and gained another $1 million for the schools, he said. "I don't think the board worked as hard as it should have to demonstrate to the public that all of the money that is being spent is being spent wisely."

THE FISCAL PLAN limits funding to a few of the county administrator's proposed initiatives, specifically those that address the county's needs in public safety and community services.

"This year, we don't have all the resources to do all the improvements we want to," Bogard said. "Everything in there was worthy, [but] when you add it all up, we would choke on the bill."

The initiatives include:

* Twenty-nine positions in the Sheriff's Office, including eight field deputies and additional staffing for criminal investigations, court security, dispatchers, School Resource Officers and a new gang intelligence unit.

* Twenty-six positions in the Department of Fire and Rescue Services to increase field coverage in the community, expand the career battalion chief program, establish an Advanced Life Support unit for the Route 50 corridor and provide for a full-time operations officer for the Emergency Communications Center.

* About $2.5 million in funding to replace proffer funds for the 17 volunteer fire and rescue companies and a 4.5 percent increase in overall funding for the companies.

* Contract funding for an operational medical director to establish medical protocols and training requirements for emergency medical technicians in the county.

* $1.4 million in funding to open the new Ashburn Library in July 2003.

* $350,000 in funding for mosquito surveillance and eradication efforts to help control West Nile virus and malaria.

* Twenty-five positions in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services to expand child care programs, sports camps and clinics, and class offerings through the Area Agency on Aging.

* $75,000 in funding for Mental Retardation Employment and Day Support Services to help students who are leaving the school system.

THE BOARD also adopted a six-year Capital Improvements Program (CIP) of $677 million for several county projects and to build eight elementary schools, one middle school and three high schools.

Other projects in the CIP include:

* Construction of public safety centers that combine fire, rescue and law enforcement services in Broadlands, South Riding, western Loudoun, Lansdowne, Brambleton and Route 28 near the Dulles Town Center.

* Construction of a public safety building to house the county's law enforcement functions.

* Construction of the Ashburn Library and renovation of the Rust Library in Leesburg.

* Development of community centers at Claude Moore and Broadlands parks.

* Construction of the Claude Moore Recreation Center in Sterling, Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park near Leesburg and the Carver School Center in Purcellville;

* Renovation or replacement of three community centers.

* Five group homes and six townhouses/condos which are planned for Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse residential services.

* Construction or acquisition of county office space.